Sunday, June 27, 2010

Amazing May 22

The Special Nature of Time


Existential analysts, May maintains also have a distinctive approach to time. They believe that such profound human experiences as anxiety, depression and joy occur more in the dimension of time than in that of space. Obviously, there are experiences that are timeless like religious experiences (if you are a believer), peak moment experiences (Peter Berger et al), or what James Joyce and indeed others spoke of as epiphany experiences – obviously these by definition are beyond time. However, it is to the experiences of anxiety, guilt and depression – experiences that are very much rooted in time – that our man May speaks of in this chapter.



Here, once again, what is important is the existential experience of time for the patient. May begins by citing a case from the psychiatrist Eugene Minkowski – a case from 1922 – where this latter medical consultant was treating a patient who presented with a depressive psychosis plus delusions of persecution. Minkowski was employed as this patient’s personal physician, and indeed lived with him for some two months. Hence, his observations are worthy of note. He noted that the patient had no idea of past and future and could not link the present with either past or future. His sense of time was that he was locked in an eternal present where things neither got better nor worse, but stayed depressingly and desperately the same. In Minkowski’s own words the fault lay thus:

This carry-over from past to present and present into the future was completely lacking in him... This reasoning... indicated a profound disorder in his general attitude to the future; that time which we normally integrate into a progressive whole was here split into isolated fragments. (Quoted op. cit., p134)

Each day for this patient was an isolated unit in time with no past and no future. Sometimes, May tells us, that in his therapeutic practice, he noticed that some patients got much better when they could be taught to focus on some point in the future when they would be outside their anxiety or depression. The essence of severe anxiety and depression is that it engulfs our whole selves, and it begins to feel as Minkowski puts it “universal.”

Our Existence Emerges

Our existence emerges over time. It is always in a sense a becoming. Therefore, it is never to be defined at static points. Other psychologists and psychiatrists, whom May quotes, like Mowrer and Liddell have noted the importance of what they term “time-binding” in the development of the psyche or the personality. By “time-binding,” they mean the ability to bring the past into the present and the present into the future in a total overall pattern or “causal nexus.” (Quoted ibid., p. 136)

Let us listen to the words of Rollo May at this juncture here:

This capacity to transcend the immediate boundaries of time, to see one’s experiences self-consciously in the light of the distant past and the future, to act and react in these dimensions, to learn from the past of a thousand years ago and to mold (sic) the long-term future is the unique characteristic of human existence. (Ibid., p. 136)

Aristotle was responsible for giving us in the West a practically spatial understanding of time where it counts out the minute changes in various things. This is alright, May argues for the Umwelt perspective on the world, but not from the perspective of Mitwelt where inter-relationships are involved. Quantitative time has little to do with love and other such deep feelings. Certainly the Eigenwelt perspective has absolutely nothing to do with Aristotle’s clock time. Insights occur instantaneously and cannot be registered on a clock. That is the very essence of self-awareness, self-consciousness and insights – they are instantaneous, immediate.

Severe depression and anxiety totally upset the patient’s relationship with time. In fact they actually blot out time. Again, following Minkowski, May argues that it may be the patient’s disturbance in relation to time, or his inability to “have” a future, that gives rise to his anxiety and depression in the first place.

Personality linked to Future Trajectory

May makes an interesting point about the human personality, that is, that it is by its very nature future-oriented. Here are his words:

Personality can be understood only as we see it on a trajectory toward its future; a man can understand himself only as he projects himself forward. This is a corollary to the fact that the person is always becoming, always emerging into the future. (Ibid., p. 139)

Existentialists and existential therapists do not neglect the past; rather they hold that it, like the present, can only be understood in relationship to the future

Alfred Adler had an interesting insight into the past. According to May he saw the human memory was really a creative process. He argued that we remembered only what had significance or importance for our “style of life,” and that the whole form of memory was, therefore, a mirror of the individual’s style of life. Strange as it may seem, what an individual seeks to become determines what he remembers from his/her past. In an equally peculiar way, then, the future determines the past.

May sounds an interesting warning note at this juncture in his classic by stating that all any type of therapy can do for an individual is help remove the blocks which are preventing the person from acting, thinking and loving. Obviously it cannot do any of the acting, thinking or loving for him/her.

Beyond Time: The Timeless Moments

I have alluded to these above. May returns to them once again and gives us more angles on the process of insight or the process of illumination or, if you like the Joycean experience of epiphany. He recalls Kierkegaard’s engaging term “augenblick” which literally means the “blinking of an eye” and this, he recalls, is generally translated as “the pregnant moment.” That’s where the person suddenly grasps the meaning of something important, but this is never solely an intellectual act. It may be a deeper personal decision, an inspiration coming from a dream, a poem, a chance occurrence. Some authors refer to these experiences as “aha” moments. Another way of putting this would be by stating that this person has had an experience of heightened awareness. I referred already to Peter Berger’s idea of peak experiences. The existential theologian Paul Tillich called it a moment when eternity touches time, what he elsewhere terms a “kairos moment.”


Above I have placed a piucture I took of a very young oak sapling which we grew from an acorn at school!

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