Thursday, June 10, 2010

Introducing Rollo May


When I find an author I love I go and buy as many of his/her books as are available and read them.  This has long been a habit with me.  I remember doing that when I was introduced to the wonderful novels of Fyodor Dostoyevski by Rev. Fr. Patrick Carmody, M.A., M.Phil. way back in the late 1970s.  Dostoyevski has long remained a favourite author to whom I return again and again and again. At the moment I am reading Rollo May.  I was introduced to him about a year back through reading another favourite existentialist therapist and disciple of thgis great man, namely, Dr. Irving Yalom.  May was one of his favourite teachers and mentors and became a great friend.  I loved what Yalom had to say about this wonderful and beautiful human being.  (As I age "beautiful" is a word that the years have liberated me from being inhibitionist about using with respeect to man, woman or beast.)  Anyway I have recently read Man's Search for Himself which May wrote way back in 1953 a brilliant little classwic which I summarised here in this blog at 13 Posts on May .  I am now three quarters way through another of his wonderful books called The Discovery of Being which I will review and summarise later in these pages.

Being as an art appeals to me as I grow older.  In a world fraught with much stress and anxiety, much of which finds its locus in the push or drive to be up and doing almost all our waking lives, it is sheer bliss to get moments of silence away from the noise of performance, and just enjoy the art of being.  I am writing this post on my small netbook while on holidays in the South of Italy where I am enjoying and appreciating the simple wonder of being while relaxing in the sun reading the above quoted book by May.  Hence a few words about this great and inspiring human being would not go astray.

Who was R.M.?

Firstly, let me state that Rollo May was one of the most important figures in existential psychology, and, without question, one of the most important American existential psychologists in the history of the discipline. His dates are 1909 – 1994, so he lived to the ripe old age of 84.

It is not surprising to note  that like many other geniuses writing and practising in the world of psychotherapy that our man experienced a difficult childhood, with his parents divorcing and his sister suffering a mental breakdown, also described in some sources as schizophrenia.  His educational background is broad and eclectic and took him to Michigan State College and Oberlin College where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1930. His first teaching position was at an American college in Greece where he taught English. While in Greece, May would often travel to Vienna to attend the seminars of Alfred Adler, and, while there, he was called to study theology and move back to the States. He received a bachelor of divinity degree in 1938 at the Union Theological Seminary, after which he practised for two years as a Congregationalist minister, which he soon gave up.  I'm not so sure whether he abandoned all institutional religion or not, but he certainly opened himself to insights into humankind from all sources East and West.

Psychology, however, became the supreme calling for May, and so he resigned from the ministry and began his studies in psychology at Columbia University in New York, New York. While working on his doctorate, he contracted TB, a life-threatening disease - a disease we Irish are very familiar with as hundreds of thousands of us died from it in our sad history as a nation - my own paternal grandfather and two of his brothers succumbed to this horrible disease.   It was out of this traumatic experience that May developed a new fondness for existential philosophy, which matched his belief that his struggle against death, even more than medical care, determined his fate in surviving the disease. Of course, May's background in theology, particularly the influence of the existential theologian Paul Tillich, was a major impetus for his desire to pursue a study of psychology informed by existentialist philosophy. In 1949, May completed his doctorate in psychology.

One of the things that inspires me about May, as it does of other major figures in psychotherapy and psychiatr, is that he, for example, asserts that an existential approach to psychology refuses to force a client to conform to a pre-articulated theoretical system and, further, does not simply fall back on using "techniques" as a defense against fully engaging with the client in psychotherapy.

May saw certain "stages" of human development which he described rather loosely, unlike Erikson's stages of psychosocial development which the latter worked out very precisely. May's suggested "loose" stages are:

1. Innocence – the pre-egoic, pre-self-conscious stage of the infant. The innocent is only doing what he or she must do. However, an innocent does have a degree of will in the sense of a drive to fulfill needs.

2. Rebellion – the rebellious person wants freedom, but has yet no full understanding of the responsibility that goes with it.

3. Decision  -  The person is in a transition stage in their life where they need to break away from their parents and settle into the ordinary stage. In this stage they they must decide what path their life will take along with fulfilling rebellious needs from the rebellious stage.

4. Ordinary – the normal adult ego learned responsibility, but finds it too demanding, and so seeks refuge in conformity and traditional values.

5. Creative – the authentic adult, the existential stage, beyond ego and self-actualizing. This is the person who, accepting destiny, faces anxiety with courage.

These are not stages in the traditional sense. A child may certainly be innocent, ordinary or creative at times or an an adult may be rebellious.

See thes sites for further information on this great human being:


Wiki May

Mythos and Logos


Theory of personality

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