Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 4

Maximising our Potential with Rollo May 4

The Roots of our Malady

Would that we knew the roots or causes of our malaise. We have long understood that treating symptoms, while it relieves the pain, only does so temporarily until the illness re-surfaces again. Hence, to get to the root cause and tackle the problem there at base, as it were, is a far more important action. So then, what does Rollo May see as the roots of our present malaise? (I believe sincerely that the situation of the USA in the fifties is similar to the situation we are experiencing currently in Ireland, which has, indeed, been slow to come of age. It is only now that the age-old hierarchies have fallen: clerical, medical, judicial, financial, bureaucratic, civil and governmental – all our so called princes are in fact now revealed to be very naked indeed.) However, there is still another sense where what Rollo May writes is of the perennial philosophical variety. His words fall into souls through our ears because they touch on wisdom rather than knowledge.

Loss of Values

May speaks about the loss of values at the centre of modern society where commercialism and success have replaced the traditional values of honesty, integrity and community. He sees modern society (again remember he was writing this book in the early fifties of the last century) as being in a state of transition, and just like individuals, when society is in such a state it becomes confused and lost. Competition has become the god of the moderns. Indeed, very few of us are our own economic bosses and most of us depend on others to provide us with work. Linked with competition as a god there is another one called “individualism.” Each human being is very much on his own in this modern world.

Loss of a Sense of Self

May refers at length to Arthur Miller’s brilliant and seminally modern play Death of a Salesman to illustrate the rootlessness and meaninglessness of modern life – that is life based solely on the twin gods of competition and of individualism. The central character is Willie Loman, an ageing salesman who can no longer “produce the goods,” to use a rather apt phrase, and he is now just about “thrown on the ash heap” and useless and so is made redundant. Here is how May paints this sad picture for us:

Willie is caught in great bewilderment, and keeps repeating too himself, ‘But I was best liked.’ His confusion in this conflict of values – why does what he was taught not work? – mounts up until it culminates in his suicide. At the grave one son continues to insist, ‘He had a good dream, to come out number one.’ But the other son accurately sees the contradiction which such an upheaval of values leads to, ‘He never knew who he was.’(Ibid., p. 30)

Roots of the Loss of Self:

I agree with May here that the ultimate cause goes back to René Descartes (1596 – 1650) who split the human person into two – a thinking spirit in the husk of the body, what we may term the “Cartesian dualism” here, and a term I appropriate from philosophy. I believe we can trace that further back still to the works of St Paul and indeed St Augustine and St Thomas who separated out the supernatural soul from the temporal body. This was the beginning of the malaise and the splitting and fragmentation of the human being. Then all the theologies and philosophies went on to split the human being further. The Enlightenment spoke of the primacy of reason – pure rationalism was the queen of the sciences, and anything beyond rationalism was suspect to say the least. Therefore, the irrational, and even the non-rational, were all consigned to base instincts and from there repressed into the unconscious. Hence, we had Freud eventually coming on the scene with his psychoanalysis in the hope of “putting Humpty Dumpty together again,” or in making the unconscious conscious, in the effort to re-unite the old unity of man.

For modern human beings, May argues that the reason, the emotions and the will are split or separated in each of us. We seem only to let our reason work at school or college, our emotions when we make love and will-power when seeking promotion or doing an exam. And so we have a splintering and a fragmentation of the whole person, of the unity of the psyche. Prophets, then, in this context are those who warn us against further splitting and fragmentation and point us towards wholeness. May mentions Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka as such early prophets. Freud, Jung and Rogers would be later ones. There are also others from the political world like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, JFK and Nelson Mandela. These have always defied disunity and fragmentation and heralded greater hopes of unity and peace, the very resolution and end of conflict.

May is good on Nietzsche, on the death of values. In this regard , the philosopher spoke of the ‘revaluation’ and ‘transvaluation’ of all values. In this sense, Nietzsche, a non-conformist unbeliever, uses the death of God as a parable or metaphor for the death of values. In other words God in Nietzsche’s work is just a metaphor for values. That in itself I believe is a wonderful thing. I have always believed that religion is sheer, if beautiful, metaphor – part of our cultural enterprise.

The Loss of a Sense of Worth and Dignity:

I suppose, with the demise of old communities where everyone was valued and had their own important roles to play, humankind has lost a sense of its worth and dignity. It’s hard to feel valued in our concrete and steel cities where we often feel we are cogs only in a vast indifferent machine. Here, Nietzsche opined that we were individually being swallowed up by the herd, and that consequently we were living by a “slave-mentality”. (See ibid., p. 35)

This loss of a sense of Self, and of self-worth and dignity May saw reflected in much of the literature he had read as a young man, viz., in the novels of Aldous Huxley, in the poetry of W.H. Auden and in the novels of Albert Camus. We get a startling sense of this loss of Self, of self-worth and of dignity in the latters little and deeply disturbing novel L’Étranger. (See ibid., p. 38)

May also makes much of the importance of laughter and a sense of humour and avers that they are deeply linked to our sense of Self or Selfhood. I remember once accompanying a good friend into the neorological wards of Beaumont Hospital here in Dublin – his father had had a brain tumour removed. Many of the other patients had been in horrific car and motorbike accidents, and I recall one good soul with a sort of metal scaffolding around his skull joking and laughing. That’s all we can do in the face of our mortality – by joking and laughing we step back at one remove from these gross injuries. Real laughter gives us a soulful perspective on life by putting things in perspective.

Losing the Language of Relationships:

Because we live in such a technocratic world we have all the latest vocabulary related to computers, films, automobiles, jet planes etc. Needless to say PCs were not around at the time May was writing this little classic. However, he mentions the fact that most people were bettere acquainte with the parts of an engine of a car than they were with the language of human relationships. (See ibid., p. 42) May makes the striking point that language is always more powerful during periods of tremendous intellectual and spiritual progress (my words, and I am using “spiritual” in its widest possible connotation.) In short, he avers that

.. when a culture is in its historical phasew of growing toward unity, its language reflects the unity and power; whereas when a culture is in the process of change, dispersal and disintegration, the language likewise loses its power. (Ibid., p. 43)

Losing our Relationship with Nature:

This lack has often been lamented, right back as far as Wordsworth who said in a poem that

This world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bears her bosom to the moon,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune


We have lost our capacity to see ourselves and our moods in nature, to relate to nature as a broad and rich dimension of our everyday real experiences.

The Loss of a Sense of Tragedy:

The great tragedians like Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, followed by Shakespeare, Marlowe, O’Neill, Arthur Miller and many more, all have this deep sense of tragedy, that we men and women are mortal and flawed beings, full of greatness, but this greatness is essentially destined to fall, to decay with the advancement of time which wears everything out. The loss of this sense of tragedy, of our insignificance and greatness rolled into one in a terrible tragic and paradoxical mix, has brought with it a loss of our conviction of the worth and dignity of the human person. When we go to such tragedies we experience the sense of our worth has human beings, flawed though we be. May quotes Arthur Miller’s wonderful introduction to his play Death of a Salesman:

The tragic character is one, he writes, ‘who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity. And ‘the tragic right is a condition of life, and a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself.’ (Ibid., p. 51)

May has some interesting things to say about the tragic hero in traditional drama and in the characters of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, but they are beyond my purposes here. (See ibid., pp. 52-53)

May finishes this chapter with a rousing call to each one of us to find “a centre of strength within ourselves,”as this is the only way to avoid the abyss of worthlessness (my terminology, not May’s, here). It is also, he avers, the best way we have at our disposal of making a contribution to the well-being, not alone of ourselves, but of our fellow human beings. It is our task, should we choose to accept it, to try to find the elusive sources of our inner strength.

To be continued.

Above, my one solitary rose left in my garden. Ah, a thing of beauty is a joy forever!!

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