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Chernynkaya On February - 15 - 2011


On seeing the blindness and misery of man, on seeing all the universe dumb, and man without light, left to himself, as it were astray in this corner of the universe, knowing not who set him there, what he is here for, or will become of him when he dies, incapable of all knowledge, I begin to be afraid, as a man who has been carried while asleep to a fearful desert island, and who will awake not knowing where he is and without any means of quitting the island.

Blaise Pascal, Pensees.

This is what we want to know: What will save us? And if we can’t be saved, what will comfort us? Finally, what is inherent in our human nature that will allow for saving and comforting? It will do us no good to proclaim that God will save us, or that the idea that God will comfort us, unless we can be assured that we are capable if having either of these answers reach us. There must be a fit between the subject (us) and the object (help). If it is not possible for us to be without sin, then purity will not save us; if we are incapable of non-attachment, detachment is no prescription. To discover what will sustain us, we must first know how we work. We have several methods to help us with both our self understanding and in our search: psychology, philosophy, and even art. These are the tools available to us. With these we seek understanding; with understanding, we try to find hope in the face of our death.

Death, along with existence, is, of course, the core mystery. They have found flowers in Neanderthal (or maybe it was Cro Magnon?) graves, but whichever iteration of proto-humans lived on the cusp of awareness, what was death to them? Did they wonder, as they looked into the vacant eyes of the dead, “Where did she go?” There is such an obvious difference between alive and dead, between here and gone, that you cannot help but be drenched by it. Once you’ve seen it, you know it irrevocably. It changes everything. Seeing a person reduced to a body is a transformation not only of the dead, but also a transformational experience for the living. In the Western world, the metaphor for this knowledge is the expulsion from Eden; in the East, is Siddhartha’s leaving the Palace. From Gilgamesh weeping over Enkidu to Orpheus seeking Eurydice, the seed of every cosmogony was the crisis of knowing. Mine too. And how odd, it strikes me now, to realize that even as we are immersed in life, and while death is around us at every moment, still we do not understand those most fundamental states. We live and don’t know what it means, and we will die and can’t know what it means.

This essay will focus on three 20th Century American thinkers who used the tools of philosophy, psychology, and theology in search of salvation: William James, Paul Tillich, and Rollo May. When faced with the dilemma of how best to organize the works of such prolific and wide-ranging thinkers, I relied upon a method I was given by a dear teacher: What is the question to which this text is the answer? So, I return to my question at the beginning of this essay. When I ask, “What will save us?” I look to theology, in this case Paul Tillich. But again, it is not enough to ask “what” without asking “how.” I am seeking that which will speak to us in the way we can hear. In other words, “What is our essential nature?” For that I turn to psychology, in this case Rollo May. Finally, in order to see how our psychology processes theology, I will look to philosophy, to William James. James, Tillich and May can each, individually and legitimately, be considered a combination of philosopher, theologian and psychologist. In turning to these three disciplines and to the ideas of these three men, I will try to refine their concepts into key themes: Courage, Will, and Faith.


Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

Virginia Woolf

William James was born in 1842 New York City into a family of rare talents, intellects and drama. His father, Henry James, Sr., a prolific (if unsuccessful) theological writer and disciple of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, provided his family a cosmopolitan atmosphere, wide travel, and schooling in France and Switzerland. William acquired his openness to unfamiliar ideas at the dinner table, along with his philosophical sister Alice, and his brother, Henry Junior, who would become the leading American novelist. (It has been said that William wrote psychology like a novelist, and Henry wrote novels like a psychologist.) Returning from erratic schooling abroad, William studied painting briefly, then sciences at Harvard before entering medical school. One of the fascinating episodes of his varied career was his expedition to the Amazon with the naturalist Louis Agassiz. He next went to Germany to study the philosophy of experimental medicine. It was there that he became acquainted with the writings of Charles Renouvier, which, as we will see, became a life-changing experience. After receiving his M.D. he taught physiology, which became for him an avenue to psychology. During this period, psychology (or “mental science”) was still a branch of philosophy, and it was James who departed from that tradition and turned it into a laboratory science.

James suffered from depression, what we now understand as clinical (vs. situational) depression. Today we know that clinical depression has a strong biochemical component and can be managed with antidepressants. The only tool available to James was his will, the will to find only limited consolation, the will to pull himself out of the mire. “I may not study, make or enjoy, “he wrote, “but I can will.” And he willed himself to find modest sources of solace and pleasure. But it was precisely James’ depressions that forced him to tackle the issue of will, and it was precisely in heroic struggles against his depressions that he found so much to teach us about will. It would require a further crisis to compel him to refine his ideas about will and willpower.

James’ education had been encyclopedic during an age of burgeoning sciences. In his era, biology, mathematics, physics and chemistry, as well as physiology, were building a record of impressive accomplishment. Therefore, any conception of the world and humanity other than that implied by the natural sciences was dismissed as sentimentality or mysticism.  Science seemed to reveal a wide range of forces that inhibited a human’s power to decide. But James found this vision repugnant, and as he studied the spectrum of human possibilities, he was deeply troubled by the problem of personal freedom.  This, along with many personal and family dynamics, led him to a breakdown and suicidal thoughts when he was in Germany, and then to periods of panic and despair when he was back in the States. It also led him to the insight that if a man could exercise any choice whatever within the existential conditions of his life, moral decisions are possible and his projects can have meaning. He felt that, somehow, his belief in natural determinism and freedom had to coexist.  He would struggle to integrate this insight for the rest of his life. He maintained openness to new ideas, which ranged from a theory of the incompleteness of the universe to spiritualism to Christian Science. He was, in his way, a surprisingly “New Age” Victorian.

Just as James’ outlook and insights were necessarily shaped in reaction to the prevailing theories of his day, the issues that occupied Paul Tillich were shaped by the anvil of the First World War and forged by the ovens of the Second. Tillich was born in 1886 in Starzeddel, Germany (which is now a part of Poland). His father was a Lutheran pastor, an authoritarian Prussian who had, as Tillich recalls, “a heightened consciousness of duty and sin.” His mother, whom he adored, died when he was 17. At age 18, Tillich began his theological studies. By the time he was 26, he had been ordained in the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union in Berlin, received his Ph.D. from the University of Breslau, and was awarded the second highest degree that could be earned in Germany. He has also gained experience by then in a variety of ministerial and pastoral duties.

The major turning point in Tillich’s life was World War I, during which he served as a chaplain. “Hell rages around us. It is unimaginable,” the 28-year-old wrote to his father from the trenches of Verdun. He broke down more than once during his months on the front. The intense suffering he experienced in facing battle deaths brought on a crisis that he later viewed as ripeness for renewal and action. Tillich immersed himself in a “Bohemian” existence in postwar Berlin, struggling to rebuild himself. He worked on lectures and studied art in spite of his personal turbulence, and amid the postwar chaos he determined that he must focus his theological work on the social, political, and economic issues of his times. The challenge of this determination was the tension of being a theologian of culture while remaining a church theologian.

There was an inherent conflict in developing a new theological language that would stay true to church doctrine yet address the urgency of a frightened culture. The people were defeated and hungry, cities were filled with beggars and the war wounded, and the populace was looking for new political answers. While he worked towards a professorship in the German academic world, he continued to deepen his vision of a specifically Protestant message and theology.  As a professor of philosophy and religion in Dresden, he articulated a Protestant theology in relationship to religious socialism, which in 1932 evolved into his book The Socialist Decision. At the same time, he had to dissociate his religious socialism from National Socialism. The Nazis targeted him and banned the book; later he lost his professorship at the University of Frankfurt, where as Dean, he defended Jewish and left-wing students, while demanding the expulsion of Nazi students. Eventually, after a painful period of indecision, he emigrated to the United States. In 1933 he accepted Reinhold Niebuhr’s invitation to teach at the Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University in New York City.

The years of World War II and its aftermath caused Tillich to shift his emphasis from religious socialism to existential theology. It is as though the theology he envisioned while in the milieu of postwar Germany had become as overwhelmed as humanity had in a post-Holocaust, post-atomic world. Tillich realized that he needed to fashion a theology that addressed a culture haunted by a pervasive existential vacuum. The challenge for a theologian of culture in such a situation was to identify this void as a source of both demonic eruptions and of sacred possibilities. He answered this task by developing his “method of correlation” which could correlate the essential symbols of Christian tradition with human existence. This method was refined in the first volume of the three-volume Systematic Theology, his definitive summation of Christian theology.

Tillich viewed theology as the attempt to correlate the questions of contemporary culture with the answers of revelation, so that the cultural setting determines the form of the answers. He echoed Nietzsche when he stated that God does not exist. While Tillich’s statement is not the same as “God is dead,” he meant it in the same sense as Nietzsche’s statement. Namely, he was referring to the traditional idea of God, which in its popular understanding is inadequate. In a culture that is rapidly changing, the old theology becomes irrelevant because it no longer articulates the existential question of God in a manner that fits our situation.

The combinations of internal and external dynamics and of personal and cultural forces provide the soil in which our ideas and worldviews germinate. William James’ theories on will, his emphasis on the immediacy of experience, and the importance of decision and commitment grew out of the circumstances of his family, his nature, and the environment of late 19th century America.  Paul Tillich’s urgency to develop responses that met people’s search for consolation was rooted in his religiosity and amended by the German experiences of two World Wars. Likewise, Rollo May’s passion to heal our shriveling sense of meaning was embedded in a post-atomic America while nurtured by the ideas of his predecessors.

We in our age are faced with a strange paradox. Never before have we had so much information in bits and pieces flooded upon us by radio and television and satellite, yet never before have we had so little inner certainty about our own being. The more objective truth increases, the more our inner certitude decreases. Our fantastically increased technical power has conferred upon us no means of controlling that power, and each step in technology is experienced by many as a new push toward our possible annihilation.

That was Rollo May’s analysis of 1983 America, and this was the context from which his existential psychotherapy emerged.

There is relatively little biographical information available about Rollo May. The little that is known reveals some intriguing commonalities with William James and Paul Tillich. All three men had disruptive childhoods, all suffered the early loss of a close female relative, and all three shared a brief flirtation with painting before settling into their life’s work. More significantly, the life-changing stimulus for each of them was—as it is for most of us—a crisis: James felt the loss of being in his panic, Tillich witnessed the non-being of war, and May touched non-being in a sanatorium.

May was born in Ada, Ohio in 1909. His childhood was not particularly pleasant: his parents divorced after years of hostility and his sister had a psychotic breakdown. After he received his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, he went to Greece and taught English for three years. During this period he also spent time as an itinerant artist. When he returned to the States, he entered the Union Theological Seminary. There, he was a student of Paul Tillich. They would develop a friendship that lasted over thirty years and Tillich would have a profound effect on his thinking.

The major turning point in his life occurred when he contracted tuberculosis and faced the possibility of his death. During the three years he spent in the sanatorium, he filled his days reading literature. Among the books he read were the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish religious thinker who inspired most of the existentialist movement. It was Kierkegaard who provided the inspiration for May’s pioneering work in existential psychology as well. Once May recovered, he went on to study psychoanalysis at the White Institute where he met such people as Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm. He completed his education at Columbia University in New York, where, in 1949, he received the first Ph. D. in clinical psychology that Columbia awarded. The next several years were spent teaching at a variety of top universities and then, in the 1950’s, he was asked to edit a book on European existentialism. With this, along with his subsequent writings, he became the person most responsible for introducing existentialism and existential psychotherapy to the United States.

Existential psychotherapy is a form of traditional psychotherapy that draws its orientation from existential philosophy. The existential tradition in philosophy is ageless, in that great thinkers everywhere have at some stage in their works turned their attention to life and death issues. The existential school of philosophy, however, began with Kierkegaard. During the 1840’s he published several important existential treatises, but they were untranslated until after World War II. It was at this point that Kierkegaard’s ideas found fertile soil and were taken up by philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. In particular, Heidegger’s Being and Time is considered the single most important text in the existential field. The existentialists were centrally concerned with rediscovering the living person amid the dehumanization of modern culture, and in order to do this they engaged in depth psychological analysis. Existential psychotherapy is based on the assumption that it is possible to have a science of humankind which does not fragmentize the individual and destroy her humanity at the same moment it studies her. It is the same tension James maintained between determinism and freedom.

Rollo May defined existentialism as “the endeavor to understand man by cutting below the cleavage between subject and object which has bedeviled Western thought and science since shortly after the Renaissance.”  By this he meant that the existential position challenges the Cartesian view that the world is full of subjects that perceive objects, which seems self-evident. It is the basic premise of scientific method, i.e., there are objects with a set of properties that can be understood though objective investigation. The existential position, however, undercuts that cleavage between the subject and the object. The person is not seen as a subject who can perceive external reality, but as a consciousness who participates in the construction of reality. This thread of existential philosophy is pulled from Heidegger’s term dasein (being there). Da (“there”) refers to the fact that the person (sein, a “being”) is placed, is a constituted object. But at the same time this person (an “empirical ego”) constitutes the world (that is, is a “transcendental ego”). Dasein is at once the meaning-giver and the known. Each being constitutes his or her own world; therefore, to study all beings with the same standard instrument as though they occupied the same objective world is erroneous.

The existential notion of dasein is very close to William James’ homier notion of truth happening to an idea. It is even closer to the theory in quantum physics that states that the very act of observing an experiment changes it, that the watching subject affects the object in such a way as to make that object different somehow. The implications of this are vast! In fact, if we return to Tillich’s controversial belief of God as being immanent and transcendent at the same time, we see closer parallels yet to existential philosophy.  How different conceptually is Heidegger’s “empirical ego” from the immanent God and his “transcendent ego” from the transcendent God? As an empirical ego, I am here—placed in my individual life. But as a transcendent ego, I am also all the world. I am my own movie, but in your film I may play only a cameo role. The immanent god is my god—that personal god to whom I am known—and that transcendent God is irreducible. Further, how different is quantum theory’s statement that the observer changes the observed from Tillich’s statement that everything finite participates in Being-Itself? The concepts of existential philosophy provide the warp frame upon which the threads of James’ pragmatism, Tillich’s theology and May’s psychotherapeutic model are woven.

Existential psychotherapy is a dynamic approach to therapy which focuses on those concerns that are rooted in the individual’s existence. All dynamic approaches to therapy are based on the idea that our thoughts and motives stem from the conflicting forces within us.  It differs from other therapies in its existential position that these conflicting forces are those which flow from our confrontation with the facts of our existence. These givens of existence are those ultimate concerns that are inescapable parts of our being in the world. When we uncover those ultimate concerns through deep personal reflection, we will be confronted with our situation—our possibilities, our boundaries—our ultimate concern. Some of the “boundary” situations include the confrontation with death, a major irreversible decision, or the collapse of meaning. The four big ultimate concerns are death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.


In the next installment– the major writings of William James, Paul Tillich and Rollo May, and how they coalesce.

Written by Chernynkaya

I am an artist and have lived in Los Angeles all of my life, except for a brief hippie period when I lived in SF. I am currently (semi-unwillingly) retired, but have had several careers.

66 Responses so far.

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  1. Existentialism is a hard topic to tackle, and I congratulate you on doing it so well.

    I was once asked if I was a person that life happened to, or a person that made life happen. I replied that I was a person who participated in life; sometimes life happens and sometimes you make it happen.

    I have to embrace the idea that each being or entity in reality helps shape it. I have to, because that is what my life is about. When I write, I am shaping other peoples’ perspective of the world around them (to various degrees, and with varying degrees of success).

    And in the field of politics, any difference or shift in perspective has wide effects. One person believes in universal health care. Another believes in free market.

    Besides, I get tired of the immature nihilism I see around me.

  2. Khirad says:

    I was noticing a lot of similarities between Paul Tillich and Adi Śaṅkara.

    Apparently, after a search, I wasn’t the only one.


    This doesn’t do it justice, but I’m feeling lazy:


    Thank you for getting Nietzsche. I get so tired of him being misinterpreted. He was, at worst, a snobbish anti-democratic misogynist (who would have hated Hitler deeply for his hyper-nationalism and anti-intellectualism), but he was talking about a new table of values, if anyone actually takes the time to read the context of Gott ist tot. We killed God. We killed meaning. Our old rituals became nothing more than a shell of themselves (Joseph Campbell greatly expanded on this).


    On another note, I haven’t yet finished William James book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, but not because I got bored of it. I simply got another copy of it and haven’t figured out where I left off yet. It’s interesting to compare him with his brother’s writings. I’m still trying to figure out The Turn of the Screw.

    It’s also curious to compare the experiences with Satre, who was affected by the meaninglessness of his war experience.

    It took me a while to get back to this, but I did find time to read it. And now off to the next one.

    • Khirad, how do you see the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of purpose being related?

      These days, purpose has been perverted. If all we are meant to do is go to work and spend money, then we have breached the final frontier of consumerism and there is nothing left.

      But is purpose and meaning linked, are they juxtaposed, are they inimical? In today’s society, I think perhaps they are juxtaposed, if only because of the purpose to which we have been forced (consumerism). There is very little meaning in consumerism, which I believe is why a lot of consumers are getting a bit defensive and frustrated. Their lives have no meaning, but finding purpose is supposed to (?) help find meaning.

      There are nihilistic forces in today’s society, and I am not talking about so-called anarchists wanting to wage a destructive war against the establishment. In the name of consumerism, there are people more than willing to tear down our planet’s foundations for the benefit of a few more dollars in profit. There are people more than willing to subjugate others for the same reason.

      Is there are any meaning in such a life? Do they feel that void?

      That is one thing that troubles me most about our situation today. We have people espousing certain beliefs and acting contrary to them. Is there anything that can explain this?

  3. Peabody II says:

    I honestly did not read your entire post — but enough to understand the theme, and to compel me to offer my perspective of “reality” through the filter of depression.

    Depression runs in my family. I’ve dealt with it all my life — although for the first half of it, I didn’t even know what it was. (It was a problem that affected “other people”, not me.) I’m not sure if that was a factor in my constant search for meaning in life — maybe that came from the OCD I also inherited — but as someone with a “connection”, I wanted to offer you the (current) conclusions of my experience — after six decades of life.

    1.) I am not what I feel. I’ve dealt with depression so often, and for so long, that I now regard it (more or less) as a passing illness, like a cold or the flu — or a seasonal allergy

    I recognize it when it comes. I know the feelings. If it gets bad, I simply start recognizing that “I’ve got it again”. When I start feeling too depressed, I stop thinking about the meanings, the absences, the hopelessness — and I start focusing on one question: What is the next thing I need to do right now? …And then I do it.

    My history has taught me that if I do this, in a few days I’ll be ok again. If I don’t, I will fall into a rapid downward spiral. If I “catch a depression” too often or it gets prolonged, I see my doctor.

    2.) My life will never be as happy or wonderful as what I perceive other people’s lives to be. . Maybe that’s because my life really is depressing. Maybe it’s because I exaggerate how happy other people’s lives are. Maybe it’s because my neurochemistry condemns me to feeling that. Perhaps it is “all of the above”.

    I can never know for certain where or how the causes lie. The only question I can answer is “Can I have experiences that make me happy?” I can. I do. So I choose to focus on those rather than whether I can experience a “normal” happiness.

    3.) Is there an afterlife? It doesn’t matter. I believe in God, but that relationship is between Him(/Her) and me. Will I disappear when I die? Will I be reincarnated until I get it right? Will I be judged and go to heaven or hell? There is no way that I can know which will happen — therefore: I don’t care. Any of those possiblities are fine with me.

    I won’t explain why, but just consider the possibility that reasons really don’t matter. Just live your life sincerely, honestly, do the best you humanly can, and accept that whatever comes after life, you’ve done all that you can do to make the universe a better place — and what ever happens to you as an “individual spirit” doesn’t matter.

  4. Chernynkaya says:

    Dear readers--
    You all have enriched my post immensely by discussing your experiences with the debilitating chemical component of depression and its soul shattering effects. I hope you forgive me for answering you as a group. I’ve never done that before, but then again I never had so many responses before—and I am thrilled. (What writer wouldn’t be?)

    It is important here, I think, to remember that James was a product of a Victorian age and a Puritan country. Someone once said that to exhort someone to invoke his willpower is like imploring a drowning man to swim without realizing that under the water his hands and feet are tied!

    I have had some experience with depression and was given antidepressants. I have to say, while it allowed me to function, I lost all creative urges which in my case was the way I processed my pain. My artwork was the result of my anguish and while under antidepressants the anguish was dulled. I had no will to create, had no fever to create.

    It is a terrible choice: do I want to suffer and be more creative, or do I want to feel better and be more productive at my job? That is the only choice at this point in psychotropic medicine but it is like Sophie’s Choice. Hard as it is, I, like many of you, would never choose NOT to have suffered, as the growth and insight would never have occurred without it. But, damn it!

    Kes brought up the point that these men lived in ages when there seemed more quite and time for introspection and long discussion. I think that is a big concern, but also to me it indicates a choice. And by opting for distraction, we are running form these questions and from our fear of them. I’d also like to say that in my type of depression, I had no energy. Therefore I really wouldn’t have been able to ponder and engage in any deep intellectual pursuit without antidepressants—yet had no desire to do so WITH them either.

    • KillgoreTrout says:

      Cher, your article is very well written and informative. But I just want to say that untreated, clinical depression is very dangerous. The usual end result is suicide. Or a slower form of capitulation by self medicating with drugs and alcohol.
      People with severe cases of depression really have no choice but to take medication. The problem is finding one that works, and has few if any debilitating side effects.
      When faced with such a grim situation, it would be very self destructive to not take medication that does help.
      I don’t believe that all creative endeavors require a trial by fire.

    • Questinia says:

      If your creativity was dulled on antidepressants (usually SSRI’s) you were on the wrong one, imo.

      • Chernynkaya says:

        That could have been the case, Q. I was not given them by a therapist, but by my GP. They did help with the lethargy, and as an unexpected bonus, I stopped smoking. (Wellbutrin?) Also, it was several years ago and things might have improved since then.

  5. Questinia says:

    Existential psychology echoes what was happening in physics at the time, that being the development of quantum mechanics.

    Ah, yes, deathiepoo. The purveyor of existential guilt. What does one do with the freedom? Does one shrink from freedom into isolation because it often flies in the face of social constraints and one’s personal history of oppression of various kinds? Being free is harder than being oppressed, including being oppressed by depression. Being free makes one realize that when one makes choices one risks discovering that those choices may be meaningless, whereas when one is isolated, as in being depressed, meaninglessness is part of the deal.

    Still goin’ with creativity, Cher. I believe if you’re human, you can create artistically in some way. It is the asexual form of procreation. You can keep going on through the immortality of your works.

    Personally, I plan on donating all my art work to the Salvation Army so they can be disseminated like spores into the landscape of college kids and those who just love a good treasure hunt.

    • KQuark says:

      Hehe beat ya to it. You know me I love a thread where I get to sneak in a Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Schrödinger’s cat in a box mind experiment reference.

  6. AHud says:

    Excellent read, Cher!

    Depression is something that the African American community never really talks about! It surprises me tho, considering everything AA’s of a certain generation was forced to endure! I remember asking my aunts, uncles, grandparents and parents if they were bitter, angry or [yes] depressed over what could or should have been! They mostly acted as if they didn’t have time for depression. But, in so many other ways it showed its ugly head! Maybe, that’s why the ‘black church’ was such a strong force and symbolic of strength! Maybe that’s why that old spiritual “leaning on the lord” brought showers of tears each time it was song!

    Cher, your piece is wonderful! Am looking forward to reading more.

  7. Strega says:

    I have never known depression for myself, but my mother had bouts with it as does my eldest sister, who is doing so much better the last few years. It’s hard to understand it, but it seems that the most creative and intelligent humans suffer from it. I wonder if the spirit is so evolved that sometimes the containment of the physical restricts the evolved being inside. Lesser beings lose patience with those that suffer, but it breaks my heart to know that some of you suffer from this dis ease and I am in awe of your strength. You all humble me. Blessed be.

  8. david p canada says:

    If you’ve never experienced depression from within, you probably know twelve people who have (or more). So like it or not, we’re all entangled in it.

    I gotta say the most helpless feeling is not knowing what to do, act, or say to comfort a person suffering from this illness. Treatment is not an exact science, that’s for sure.

    Chemicals can help. Maybe God. Maybe a combination of both.

    The lucky ones find a path out of the darkness. Some seem to wander in the twilight. Tragically, some take a quick way out.

    Science and religion haven’t nailed this one. Yet.

  9. zippitytoo says:

    “Creative people, as I see them, are distinguished by the fact that they can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of the ‘divine madness,’to borrow the term used by the classical Greeks. They do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being. They knock on silence for an answering music: they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.”

    ~Rollo May, The Courage To Create” ~

    I look forward to your next installment on this most important and interesting merging of thoughts.

  10. KillgoreTrout says:

    I am all too familiar with depression and mania, from personal experience. I was glad to see you noted the difference between clinical and situational depression. I believe situational depression CAN be willed away. But clinical depression cannot. As you say, it is a matter of brain chemistry.
    In the summer of 1989, I began to experience not only depression, but extreme mania to the point of psychosis. I believe much of it was brought about by alcoholism and an earlier, somewhat lengthy fascination with LSD. I know what it’s like to be a split decision away from ending one’s own life.
    After 5 alcohol treatment programs through the VA hospitals, the last one did the trick, with the help of anti-depressants and a whole new way at looking at life.
    It was a long, long journey which led me to the essays and addreses of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I had a bit of difficulty at first, because of the use of an older style English. But I plodded on, sometimes rereading paragraph after paragraph, until it understood what Emerson was saying.
    Then one year my daughter bought me a copy of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. The similarities in what Lao Tsu wrote, and what Emerson wrote were amazing. I really don’t struggle with existential issues any longer. I nearly died, more than once, getting here, but all in all, I’d say it was worth it.
    BTW, it’s been a long time since I saw anybody reference Emanuel Swedenborg!

    • escribacat says:

      Kilgore, I just ordered an Emerson and Lao Tsu. Thanks — that’s about one of the best recommendations I’ve ever seen.

      • KillgoreTrout says:

        You’ll be glad you did. Emerson requires a bit of patience at first, but is well worth the effort.
        Lao Tsu kind of works by the process of osmosis through repeated readings. 😉

    • david p canada says:

      It’s interesting that the rate of depression is virtually identical in the social classes.

      Money cannot buy happiness.

    • Khirad says:

      I’ve had lifelong battles with clinical depression -- and it thoroughly pisses me off how some just think we should just pick ourselves up and brush it off.

      And I am able to only drink once in a while now (though not always responsibly still), but have been through that program, as well.

      As to Emerson, the similarities probably weren’t happenstance. Transcendentalism drew upon Hinduism and Eastern religion.

      • kesmarn says:

        Agreed, Khirad. I had a good friend who suffered from clinical depression and nothing bummed her out more than when her family would say: “You have to fight it!” Once, she said to me in frustration: “Don’t they know I’m already fighting it every day?”

        That is a different story.

      • KillgoreTrout says:

        I hear ya. Those who have never experienced the sheer blackness of clinical depression just don’t understand it. How could they?
        Yeah, Emerson mentions the wisdom of the East, including Lao Tsu, and the Upanishads.

    • Abbyrose86 says:

      Oh WOW…Kilgore, thank you for sharing your story.

      So many times hearing the struggles of others, humanizes the concept better than all the clinical analysis in the world.

  11. KQuark says:

    Cher a true tour de force. Though I admit it took me two days to grasp all your were saying. Honestly your writing often requires me to stretch my intellect as far as it can go, especially since I think better in terms of images and numbers.

    It always amazed me how existentialism corresponds so well with the physical view of reality quantum mechanics theorizes. From the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to Schrödinger’s cat in a box mind experiment it’s uncanny how existential philosophy and science merge.

    • Chernynkaya says:

      KQ I was hoping you would wade through this particularly because of the POV you bring. Exactly!! Quantum mechanics! I was hoping that part would resonate. Thank you for your very kind words!

  12. kesmarn says:

    Cher, I can hardly wait for the next part of this series. You’ve touched on matters that are so essential, so important that we’re often afraid to even begin the think about them, for fear of where those thoughts might lead.

    It occurs to me that the three thinkers you’ve examined — as you’ve implied — share a vital commonality. And that is that they reached their level of wisdom by walking through the fires of suffering.

    At the risk of sounding flippant, I think suffering has gotten a bad rap. As cliched as it is to say, it seems to be true that almost nothing worthwhile is ever achieved except through suffering — whether it’s winning Olympic gold or having a baby or getting a PhD.

    And yet we Americans run madly from suffering as though it were Satan himself hot on our heels.

    I’m not a fan of masochism or of stoic endurance of meaningless suffering when there are simple remedies available (anyone could have a tooth extracted without anesthesia, but what would be the point?). But there are some forms of suffering that result in astonishing achievements. If James had been Zolofted out of his anxiety and depression, would that have been preferable, even though it would likely have short-circuited so much valuable work? If Tillich had been Xanaxed through both World Wars, would he have been a happier person? Maybe. But look at what he and we would have lost. May could have been an alcoholic to deal with a painful childhood… Instead he faced it head on.

    That sort of courage — the type that lets one stare meaninglessness and horror straight in the eye, and remain undrugged — is rare. But look at what comes of it. Wisdom.

    Christ, Abraham, Buddha, Muhammad — all suffered terribly. Which is not to say that they lived joyless lives! In fact, is it really possible to know joy if one hasn’t experienced grief or terror?

    The one thing that your three thinkers would — I suspect — believe and agree upon is that the human mind is more than just a chemistry set. Of course it works on chemicals, but the really intriguing question is how much we humans can control our own minds/chemistry/fate. James’s notion of will is so much more empowering than the idea that every modern day personal existential crisis can be solved with a prescription pad.

    Teilhard de Chardin speaks so eloquently on suffering:

    At every moment we see diminishment, both in us and around us, which does not seem to be compensated by advantages on any perceptible plane: premature deaths, stupid accidents, weaknesses affecting the highest reaches of our being. Under blows such as these, man does not move upward in any direction that we can perceive; he disappears or remains grievously diminished. How can these diminishments which are altogether without compensation, wherein we see death at its most deathly, become for us a good?

    deChardin’s answer is that the process of dying is a process of separation from the self, and ultimate, eternal union with the infinite. Something that must inevitably be achieved through suffering accepted in love.

    • KillgoreTrout says:

      Through suffering, one can achieve great personal growth. But it is a risk/reward situation. Are the rewards actually worth the risks? In my case, I would say yes, but as my mother used to say to me, with some frequency, “You have a guardian angel, but he is going to quit, with all the overtime you require.”

    • Abbyrose86 says:

      Kesmarn, you have touched upon something that has disturbed me greatly in recent years…the desire to make all bad go away through any and all means necessary, especially through medication.

      I’m not suggesting that EVERYONE who is on these medications doesn’t really need to be…But I think that many of those on those medications don’t need to be and maybe stifling their own REAL purpose by being medicated.

      Bad things happen to good people AND bad things CAN be used to create good things and great ideas. Without having some level of bad, how can anyone appreciate the good?

      “the sweet ain’t as sweet without the sour”

      • kesmarn says:

        Yes, Abby. We’ve been conditioned to think that all pain is always bad and it always needs to go away asap. There really is such a thing as beneficial pain-- most athletes understand that. (And a lot of parents! 😆 )

        • Abbyrose86 says:

          Truthfully, as I look back at some of the worst moments of my own life and the pain that accompanied them, I am now grateful for those experiences.

          I would not be who I am today if not for those very painful life events. They still hurt sometimes, BUT they were also the best learning experiences I could have ever had and as such provided the opportunity for me to really find what is important to my life.

          I like that term ‘beneficial pain’…I used to go to the gym quite often and my trainer often said “no pain, no gain” it works that with much of life, I think.

      • PocketWatch says:


        The Yin/Yang symbol embodies the idea. You cannot truely know something unless you have experienced the opposite. Mountains would not be mountains without the valleys, light/dark, heat/cold, and so on. We live in a world of opposites, a binary existence, and by comparing one to the other, we see reality.

        At least I think so…

    • Chernynkaya says:

      Kes-- I should have known that this would resonate with you and that you would grasp what I was saying immediately and intuitively. You always stun me. Everything you wrote is profoundly true. You are an amazing person, kesmarn.

      • kesmarn says:

        Oh, Cher! You just made my day!

        And — to our friends who posted above — like you, I recognize the difference between clinical and situational depression, and the place medication holds in the former. Meds can truly save lives. But I do also see them sometimes used to push any and all psychic pain underground, when working through issues would produce so much of value.

        Again, Cher, thank you. Your words mean more than I can say.

  13. Questinia says:

    Fantastic Cher! I will wait to give comments after the next installment. This type of post, the kind that melds and unifies, is the kind which can alter one’s perceptions of the human world profoundly.

    My initial answer to the question of “what will save us”? Creativity and the will to create.

    • Chernynkaya says:

      Q--as usual you are leaps ahead of me--yes: creativity and the will to create. I was really hoping you would be around to read this and I am very anxious (in a healthy way 😉 ) to read your comments!

      I posted part 2 today--I hope you enjoy it.

  14. Harry says:

    I’ve been lurking here on and off ever since this fine place hit the cosmos (I had another -- brief -- incarnation at Another Place:)), but haven’t felt compelled to do any more than admire the erudition, warmth and genuine respect that’s so evident here. You folks rock.

    It occurs to me, reading this excellent post, that the answer is right in front of us, here on the Planet and in our everyday, most uncommon lives. Love is all there is, love it is that will save us. All else is just scary thoughts in our minds, to which we pay too much attention.

    I’ll probably have to write my own post on the subject now;)

    • KQuark says:

      Wow great sentiment to come out of the lurker closet with so to speak.

      My wife’s only religion is love. That’s the only thing she truly believes in at all. There may be more out there but if everyone had that as their only belief the world would be an awesome place.

    • Khirad says:

      We love our lurkers, too. 🙂

    • Chernynkaya says:

      @Harry--PLEASE Do write a post on the Planet. I cannot tell you how honored I feel that I lured you out of your “lurking.”

      And you are completely right--it is right in front of us--the humanity and the open-heartedness of the people here is transformative. My sincerest thanks.

  15. Chernynkaya says:

    Thanks to all of you who enjoyed my post! It means a lot to have your encouragement.

    As an aside, here is a video clip from an upcoming documentary that features my teacher for the past 20 years, Rabbi Omer-man.

  16. flo baum says:

    Quite wonderful Cher !! I loved reading about them. Pretty fascinating stuff.

    I was formerly a buddhist for the last thirty years, I still meditate but really delved into Paramahansa Yogananda and there is some little things coalescing there I think, that little exquisite stinking quantum theory lol

    so many thanks, Cher, 😉

  17. whatsthatsound says:

    This is so fascinating, Cher! I hope that this and subsequent articles of yours on these three men can become a forum for some very interesting discussion and debate. Who knows? With all the smart people here we may even come up with The Answer! 🙂

    I’ll return to this again and write more. It needs to be studied a bit.

  18. Abbyrose86 says:

    As usual Cher, you have provided a very thought provoking piece.

    I know for myself, the death of my mother at a fragile age, along with other family trauma, was a turning point in my own life that has led me on a journey of my own.

    One where I am seeking out understanding of many of the ideas put forth by these men.

    I truly look forward to reading more and look forward to your next installment.

    This is a subject matter that I long to learn more about.


  19. whatsthatsound says:

    Cher, I am so looking forward to reading this! Will comment later.

  20. ADONAI says:

    Any article that references Swedenborg is o.k. in my book.

    Excellent post Cher.

  21. maveet says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. Discovering existential psychology and Rollo May in college gave me the support and insights I needed to go on. I’m looking forward to the next installments. 😉

  22. Caru says:

    That was a very good essay. Well done. 🙂

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