Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 3

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 3

May divides Man’s Search for Himself into three distinct sections: (i) Part 1, he calls Our Predicament, (ii) Part 2, Rediscovering Selfhood and finally (iii) Part 3 he aptly calls The Goals of Integration. In this and the next post I wish to address my comments to Part 1 which has two chapters, viz., The Loneliness and Anxiety of Modern Man and the Roots of Our Malady respectively.

The Loneliness and Anxiety of Modern Man:

May points out that in the wake of World War 1 mankind (his word from 1953 – we would undoubtedly prefer humankind as the substantive here) was lost. According to our psychotherapist, modern man suffered from a deep malaise which he was struggling to come to terms with and to solve. May reminds us that other experts including Freud, the great founder of psychoanalysis, had suggested various causes for this malaise. Freud suggested that the general malaise was attributable to individual sexual problems (early 1900s); Otto Rank saw the source of alienation as originating in feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and guilt (1920s) while Karen Horney blamed the competitive nature of society for this debilitating spiritual malaise afflicting modern man (1940s). Now we come to 1953 when May was writing this wonderful little classic. May, a foremost existentialist psychotherapist attributed this modern malaise and spiritual alienation to what he terms “Emptiness.” He described this feeling as being such that his clients just did not know what they wanted from life, and further they seemed not to know what they were feeling anyway in the first place. May goes on to quote from T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Hollow Men, from which he quotes some six lines. I have often quoted this same poem in this blog before and shan’t delay on re-quoting them here. So the emptiness modern beings experience may be called being “lost,” “hollow,” “fake” or “phony” (as Holden Caulfield calls those lost adults in Catcher in the Rye). May quotes one of his clients as a having said that he was “just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me.” (Op. cit., p. 4)

He refers to the mind-numbingly boring lives lived by a lot of moderns called “suburban” residents. He sees much unacknowledged frustration and much repressed hostility there. Many suburban men die of boredom, May believes, when they retire. (See ibid., p. 9) Then, he follows these observations with the following warning, still true, alas and alack some 60 years later: “The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair, and eventually into destructive activities.” (Ibid., p. 11) May also uses other words for emptiness, viz., vacuity and sheer powerlessness (ibid., p. 11).

Related to this sense of powerlessness of modern beings is knowing that what they want and what they feel really make no difference to their plight anyway that they give up wanting and feeling. He points out interestingly that “apathy and lack of feeling are also defences against anxiety. This is really a final line of defense. (See pp. 12-13). Indeed, what Americans were experiencing in the fifties of the last century we have only experienced in the last 15 years or so here in Ireland. He quotes Erich Fromm and points out with him that today people no longer live under the authority of church or moral laws, but under “anonymous authorities.” (See ibid., p. 12)

As one well acquainted with the religious/spiritual/monastic impulse, I have long well understood the important distinction between loneliness and solitude. The former is a debilitating and soul-shattering experience while the latter is therapeutic and soul-building. I was lucky to have spent some three years of my life in a religious community, and two years of that in novitiate with monastic type regulations. The solitude was wonderfully self-building or soul-building. In loneliness one feels abandoned and forsaken while in solitude one feels anything but alone – one feels embraced by well-being.

May points out that for modern man loneliness and emptiness go together, and that they are in fact two phases of the same basic experience of anxiety. He adverts to the sheer loneliness felt by many after the horrific exploding of the Atom Bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima – such wanton destruction of human life in such large numbers at one swell swoop left many alone with the thought that we can destroy ourselves and leave only some behind to pick up the pieces in sheer loneliness. There is a paradox at play in our experience of self. May puts it succinctly: “...the human being gets his original experiences of being a self out of his relatedness to other persons, and when he is alone, without other persons.” (Ibid., p. 14)

Or again we get the following wonderful insight into our fear of loneliness:
The fear of being alone derives much of its terror from our anxiety lest we lose our awareness of ourselves. If people contemplate being alone for longish periods of time, without anyone to talk to or without any radio to eject noise into the air, they generally are afraid that they would be at “loose ends”, would lose the boundaries for themselves, would have nothing to bump up against, nothing by which to orient themselves.(Ibid., p. 17)

In other words we define ourselves through our boundaries, but many moderns have so pushed out their boundaries that they have lost sense of themselves, and become totally unaware of their boundaries and in consequence are so dispersed that they lose all sense of self. Such losing of a sense of self can lead to psychosis.


However, it is to the experience of anxiety that May attributes most power in the lives of human beings. Obviously, he had encountered many patients presenting with this problem:

Anxiety, the other characteristic of modern man, is even more basic than emptiness and loneliness. For being hollow and lonely would not bother us except that it makes us prey to that peculiar psychological pain and turmoil called anxiety.

Needless to say, in 1953 when May was writing this wonderful little classic he had lived through two world wars and the dropping of the Atomic Bombs, through economic depressions following the great Wall Street Crash. No wonder he could write that the twentieth century was essentially the century or the “age of anxiety.” We know, despite all the self-help organizations and media and literature of all types that we still live in such an anxious age on the cusp of the twenty-first century. What the next 90 or so years will hold for humankind we dare not envisage. We were never ever before in our human history taking such volumes of drugs to keep our anxiety at bay as we are today. May also makes some throw-away remarks about the rise of totalitarianism – be it Fascist or Communist – stating that economic bankruptcy, coupled with moral and spiritual bankruptcy on the part of any state will leave that nation prey to totalitarianism. (See op. cit., p. 20)

He also takes a tilt at the then “witch-hunts” for communists in the McCarthy era during which he was writing his book. That was a sad, distrustful and horrible period in the history of the USA. Our modern anxiety comes out in our psychosomatic illnesses, which I was surprised to learn were known about very well indeed in the early fifties of the last century. Our anxiety comes out of our very lostness (my word), our sense of being cut adrift on a vast ocean of confusion, “with no direction home” to quote the words Dylan: “We are anxious because we do not know what roles to pursue, what principles for action to believe in. Our individual anxiety, somewhat like that of the nation, is a basic confusion and bewilderment about where we are going.” (Ibid., p. 21)

I love May’s differentiation of anxiety from fear. In fear, he states, we actually know what is frightening or terrorising us, while in anxiety we never really know what the object of our anxiety really is. He states succinctly: “In anxiety, however, we are threatened without knowing what steps to take to meet the danger. Anxiety is the feeling of being “caught”, “overwhelmed”, and instead of becoming sharper, our perceptions generally become blurred or vague.” (Ibid., 23) And so anxiety can have varying degrees of intensity and it is well the present writer knows that. I am a teacher of young adolescent boys on the ASD spectrum and all of them suffer from anxiety at various levels of intensity. One poor lad suffers from extreme anxiety and has been diagnosed recently with OCD and is driven wild by his anxiety. At the moment he is medicated for this. The other boys are not quite as anxious, but they all have it at one intensity or another.

May points out perspicaciously that it’s the quality rather than the quantity of anxiety that is important, and that it is the hell of uncertainty about what might be causing our anxiety that can be quite unhinging. I also liked his definition of neurotic anxiety: “Normal anxiety cannot be avoided; it should be frankly admitted to oneself. This book will be chiefly concerned with the normal anxiety of the person living in this age of transition, and the constructive ways this anxiety can be met. But of course much anxiety is neurotic... that is, anxiety disproportionate to the real danger, and arising from an unconscious conflict within himself.” (ibid., p. 25) Anxiety strikes us at the core of our being, or to use other metaphors at the very roots of our tree of life or at the very foundations of our home. We are bowled over, knocked for six, use whatever cliché you will, because we are bewildered as to the real cause of our anxiety, confused as to who we really are, and even more confused as to what we should do about our anxiety. However, it is here that May introduces the antidote for this crippling illness, that is, awareness. He points out that just as anxiety destroys our self-awareness, our very awareness of ourselves can destroy our anxiety.

This is the Good News, as it were: “...the stronger our consciousness of ourselves, the more we can take a stand and overcome anxiety. Anxiety, like fever, is a sign that an inner struggle is in progress.”(Ibid., p. 27)

To be continued.

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