Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Maximizing Our Potential with Rollo May 13

And so, my friends we reach the end of Dr Rollo May's wonderful little classic: Man's Search For Himself.  Existentialism, if it means anything, I think, is the struggle to live in the now, to engage with life in all of its ups and downs, in all of its vicissitudes, in all of its joys and sorrows with a certain objectivity and equanimity and then to reflect on this lived experience.  It is an attempt to engage with one's own subjectivity and reflect on it as objectively as one can.  Now that is more easily said than done.  Also this is my definition, and it is likely to fall somewhat short of a more philosophical definition.  What follows is the next paragraph is a more philosophical definition. 

There is a very wide variety of philosopcal ideologies that go to make up existentialism, and so there is no universal definition. And so it is necessary to remain open and realize that most existentialisms have a different view and form. Existentialism is a 20th century philosophy concerned with human existence, finding self, and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. The belief that people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions.

And so Dr Rollo May was a leading psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in the existentialist school which attempts to allow the client find their own meaning, find their true Self through their own authentic choices. 

One heading in this chapter which caught my eye is aptly entitled: "Man doth not live by the clock alone."  This is so true because modern life has become a tyranny of the clock.  Industry and commerce live under its tyrannical gaze.  We rush to work and try to cram in as much activity as we can.  Our anthem seems to be "more, more, more, and still more"  However, such a notion of "filling " every moment of the day with activity, and not just any old activity, but activity geared towards making the most money will never leave him satisfied.  However, such tyranny wears the soul down.  I have often heard colleagues talk about certain aspects of teaching being "soul destroying."  After all, the soul is like a bird, and under the tyranny of time as outlined here it becomes caged and certainly songless.

But we are creatures who can open our own cage doors and fly free - all as it takes is a willingness to do so, an awareness of what it means to be caged in the first place. a willingness to embrace our own freedom.   Here are the refreshing words of Dr May: of the unique characteristics of man is that he can stand outside his present time and imagine himself ahead in the future ore back in the past... This power to look "before and after" is part of man's ability to be conscious of himself.  Plants and animals live by quantitative time: a hour, a week or a year past, and the tree has another ring on its trunk.  But time is quite a different thing for the human being; man is the time-surmounting mammal.  (May, op.cit., p. 194)
May then talks of what he terms "psychological time" which has the taste of eternity in it, if I may wax lyrical here.  This is the kind of time we experience when we are in love, when we do something very artistic, imaginative and creative.  It's as it time stands still - it is very lightness itself, unbound by temporality.  Psychological time has more to do with the meaning of the experience - bound up with the meaning-making capacity of humanity.  Another facet of "psychological time" is the magic of memory, especially good memories.  I remember once reading the great John Henry Cardinal Newman - in one of his Oxford University Sermons he said that "How a man believes is as much as mystery as how he remembers."  Here are the lyrical words of Dr. May on memory: " is not just the imprint of the past time upon us; it is the keeper of what is meaningful for our deepest hopes and fears."  (Ibid., p. 195)  Quanitative time is a poor substitute for the qualitative nature of this more psychological time.

However, the past must never become a mere escape from engaging in the present.  Likewise, the future must never become a mere hope or wish that things will be better then than they are now. In both cases the human being is attempting to escape the inevitability of mortality, of death, the final blow to temporality which is essentially extinction.  Hence we can understand what C.G. Jung meant when he said that a person is afraid of growing old to the entent that he is not really living now.  Hence it follows that the best way to meet the anxiety of growing old and dying is to make sure that at the moment one is fully alive.  Once again awareness is all.  The secret is to learn to live now, in the now, here and now.  I cannot say "now" often enough.  The worse sense of living in the future is thge vain hope that things will be put aright, that all wrongs will be corrected in the next world, and this misconception is what Marx meant by saying that religion was the "opium of the people."  This is religion at its worst, in its worst conception.

Once again May is succinct: "For psychologically speaking the present moment is all we have." (Ibid., p. 200)  He is also interesting in his reflections on eternity which, he says,

is not a given quantity of time: it transcends time.  Eternity is the qualitative significance of time.  One does not have to identify the experience of listening to music with the theological meaning of eternity to realise that in music - or in love, or in any work that proceeds from one's inner integrity - that the "eternal" is a way of relating to life, not a succession of "tomorrows." (Ibid., p. 203)
And the practical implication of all that Rollo May has written here in this little classic is, along with the aim of all existential therapy that it is every human's goal to live each moment with freedom, honesty, integrity, authenticity and finally with responsibility.  No easy task, indeed, but one rooted in meaning and in meaning-making.

Above the foot of a Roman legionary or soldier. It is all that remains of an ancient statue. Once again this is a picture I took in the Vaticam Museum.

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