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Psychologist Profile: Rollo
"One does not become fully human painlessly."
Rollo May (April 21,
1909 - October 22, 1994) was an American existential psychologist.
He authored the influential book (one of my personal favorites)
entitled, Love and Will in 1969.
Although he is often associated with humanistic psychology, he differs from other humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers in emphasizing the tragic dimensions of human existence. Unlike them, he built his thinking around the tenets of existentialist philosophy.
Much of his thinking can be understood by reading about existentialism in general. Nevertheless, he is a little off of the mainstream in that he was more influenced by American humanism than the Europeans, and more interested in reconciling existential psychology with other approaches, especially Freud's.
May was born in Ada, Ohio in 1909. He
experienced a difficult childhood, with his parents divorcing and
his sister suffering a mental breakdown.
His educational career took him to Michigan State College majoring in English and Oberlin College for a bachelor's degree, teaching for a time in Greece, to Union Theological Seminary for a BD in 1938, and finally to Teachers College, Columbia University for a PhD in clinical psychology in 1949.
May uses some traditional existential terms in
a slightly different fashion than others, and he invents new words
for traditional existentialist concepts.
Destiny, for example, could be "thrownness" combined with "fallenness" - the part of our lives that is determined for us, for the purpose of creating our lives.
He also used the word "courage" to signify authenticity in facing one's anxiety and rising above it.
"Stages" of Development
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.
Rebellion - the rebellious
person wants freedom, but has yet no full understanding of the
responsibility that goes with it.
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 must decide what path their life will take, along with
fulfilling rebellious needs from the rebellious stage.
Ordinary - the normal adult
ego learned responsibility, but finds it too demanding, and so
seeks refuge in conformity and traditional values.
Creative - the authentic
adult, the existential stage, beyond ego and self-actualizing. This
is the person who, accepting destiny, faces anxiety with
May on Modern-Day Love
May perceived the sexual revolution
of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as commercialization of sex and
pornography, as having influenced society and planted the idea in
the minds of adults that love and sex are no longer directly
According to May, emotion has become separated from reason, making it socially acceptable to seek sexual relationships and avoid the natural drive to relate to another person and create new life.
May believed the awakening of sexual freedoms can lead modern society to dodge awakenings at higher levels. May suggests that the only way to turn around the cynical ideas that characterize our generation is to rediscover the importance of caring for another, which May describes as the opposite of apathy.
Definition of Anxiety
His first book, The Meaning of
Anxiety, was based on his doctoral dissertation, which in
turn was based on his reading of the 19th century philosopher Soren
His definition of anxiety is "the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value which the individual holds essential to his existence as a self" (1967, p. 72).
He also quotes Kierkegaard: "Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom".
Love and Will
Many of May's unique ideas can be
found in the book I consider his best, Love and Will. In his
efforts at reconciling Freud and the existentialists, he turns his
attention to motivation. His basic motivational construct is the
daimonic. The daimonic is the entire system of
motives, different for each individual. It is composed of a
collection of specific motives called daimons.
Basically, he says, a daimon is anything that can take over the person, a situation he refers to as daimonic possession. It is then, when the balance among daimons is disrupted, that they should be considered "evil".
For May, one of the most important daimons is eros. Eros is love (not sex), and in Greek mythology was a minor god pictured as a young man. Later, Eros would be transformed into that annoying little pest, Cupid. May understood love as the need we have to "become one" with another person, and refers to an ancient Greek story by Aristophanes. When we became a little too prideful, the gods split us in two, male and female, and cursed us with the never-ending desire to recover our missing half!
"Like any daimon, eros
is a good thing until it takes over the personality,
until we become obsessed with it."
Another important concept for May is
will: The ability to organize oneself in order to
achieve one's goals. This makes will roughly synonymous with ego
and reality-testing, but with its own store of energy, as in ego
psychology. May hints that will, too, is a daimon that can
potentially take over the person.
Another definition of will is "the ability to make wishes come true." Wishes are "playful imaginings of possibilities," and are manifestations of our daimons. Many wishes, of course, come from eros. But they require will to make them happen!
Hence, we can see three "personality types" coming out of our relative supply, you might say, of our wishes for love and the will to realize them.