It is never too late to become

who you might have been.

~~ George Eliot.

When William James was 28, after suffering from depression most of his life, he had a full-blown panic attack. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he was overtaken with a “a horrible fear of my own existence.” As he saw it at that point, he could have chosen not to feel the panic, and instead he could will himself to believe that he was strong  enough not to go insane. That panic attack was followed by a period of intense existential dread. At some point during this period he came across an essay by Charles Renouvier which caused a crucial shift in his understanding. The shift was in his viewing of will from “willpower” to “free will.” Whereas before he held that one’s will was determined by a combination of one’s inherent personality and society’s restrictions, he began to think he might choose who he could become. With free will, it was possible to create oneself and be free. It was a leap of faith: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” “Now I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well, believe in my individuality and creative power.” We can sense in these statements a mixture of epiphany and of desperate prayer; a potent and poignant combination. It was the beginning of his self-actualization. It is willpower that allows us to take decisive action—to choose—on our own behalf.

James published what might be considered his masterpiece, Principles of Psychology in 1890, which contains his definitive chapter on will. He began by distinguishing will from wish, and then continued by discussing different types of will, ranging from “primary will” (characterized by lack of conflict), to “healthy will” (defined as action following vision), and eventually he gets to “obstructed will.” “Unhealthy” or obstructed will is the state that we are in when our eyes glaze over and we are unable to “rally our attention,” or when “We sit blankly staring and do nothing.” We ask ourselves, Why doesn’t something interest me? This question provided the key to its answer, namely, attention. James saw that the central problem of will is the strain of keeping our attention focused. This realization then led him to a very unusual statement: “Will and Belief, in short meaning a certain relation between objects and the Self, are two names for one and the same psychological phenomenon.”

When a person chooses (or feels forced to choose) to protect himself from anxiety, it can be seen as a negating of possibilities, a shrinking of one’s world. The development of the self is drastically curtailed. Prior to the pivotal panic attack, when William James was in the throes of a depression, he thought that his will would enable him to go on living with at least small satisfactions. (“I may not study, make or enjoy, but I can will.”) This was the most he could imagine. In Paul Tillich’s terms, the person has chosen (or has been forced) to accept a greater degree of nonbeing in order to preserve a modicum of being. But the experiences we have, such as James’ crisis, offer us insights. Unless we pursue these insights as James did, with courage and integrity, we will forfeit our possibilities for expansion and for the meaning of our existence as human beings.

James saw will as simply the attention we give to an idea. Our minds are always full of thoughts and ideas competing for our attention, but we can decide—choose—which of those to pay attention to. For example, if I want to transform my sense of personal dissatisfaction into a decision to change and then into an act of change, the process would follow a sequence something like this: I want to believe that I can change, but I am generally negative and lacking in self-confidence. My mind finds it easy to imagine all the reasons that my success is unlikely. Therefore I must concentrate—practically force myself—to envision a different scenario, one in which I am effective. The more effort I expend focusing on the possibility of change, the easier it becomes for me to believe. Once I begin to believe that I can change, I begin to act accordingly.

But for James, the crucial question was: what caused me to make this mental shift and attend to one way of thinking over another? It is, James said, a spiritual energy that he called an “original force.” It has also been called the hallmark of humanity, an ability to move into an alternate reality. It is will. In my example above, it was not a reaction on my part to any outside stimulus; it came from within me. I chose to focus my thoughts in this direction, and in so doing, I entered the anteroom of change. Next, through self-observation and feedback, I can learn what my behavior is like. Perhaps with the help of trusted friends (or today, a therapist) I am able to see how my behavior makes others feel, I can learn how people react to me and this also influences my opinion of myself—my self-worth and lovability. And so on. But as anyone who has tried to change knows, the mind is as hard to steer as a behemoth ocean tanker! The intrapsychic agency that initiates an act, that transforms intention and decision into action, is will. “The world thus finds in the heroic man its worthy match and mate, and the effort he is able to put forth to hold himself erect and keep his heart unshaken is the direct measure of his worth and function in the game of human life.” Here is the passionate, existential William James.

In Love and Will, Rollo May credits James’ work as the basis of his treatise on will. Citing James’ concept of attention being the central problem of will, May said, “I don’t know whether he realized what a stroke of genius this was. When we analyze will with all the tools modern psychoanalysis brings us, we shall find ourselves pushed back to the level of attention and intention as the seat of will.” That said, May showed the ways in which James’ concept of will left “some unfinished business,” but he hastened to explain that this is only because seventy years of psychotherapy have provided data that James did not have. May suggested that not only is there a whole dimension of experience left out by James, but that it is also omitted by contemporary psychology. The dimension he is referring to is intentionality.

The word “intent” derives from the Latin intendere, to stretch. Intentionality is central to May’s entire theory of will; it is the connective tissue that is distributed among all his ideas about reality and being. May saw intentionality as a dimension of will that includes both the unconscious and the conscious, and which is “the structure which gives meaning to experience. It is not to be identified with intentions, but is the dimension which underlies them; it is man’s capacity to have intentions.” Further, will and intentionality naturally point towards the future. “The word ‘will’ itself, as a verb, is not only a statement about the future; it is primarily a statement of resolve: I will make it so.” To be unable to imagine a future is to be in despair. To envision a future in which we have a choice, and to commit to it, is to put ourselves on the line. This kind of risk naturally makes us anxious but if we don’t take it, we risk our identity. “Normal, constructive anxiety goes with becoming aware of and assuming one’s potential. Intentionality is the constructive use of normal anxiety.”

As May pointed out, unhealthy and overwhelming anxiety destroys our ability to perceive ourselves in the world, and “we shrink back into a stockade if limited consciousness hoping only to preserve ourselves until the danger has passed.” Paul Tillich went further and related intentionality to vitality, and then to courage. Intentionality is related to vitality in the sense that to be vital is to reach out, to be active and creative in the world. Tillich explained that Nietzsche’s meaning of “will to power” is the intentionality that is the inseparable aspect of being. It does not connote aggression or competition. Will, in this sense, is the individual affirming his existence and his potential; it is “the courage to be as an individual,” Tillich said. He felt that courage is what enables us to reach our potential; without the courage to be we lose our being. Once again, to act is to risk, and thus the measure of one’s intentionality can be seen as the measure of one’s courage.


Risk! Risk anything!

Care no more for the opinion of others, for

those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth

for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.

~~ Katherine Mansfield

The internal scale by which we balance risk with courage amounts to: “How much does it matter to me?” The more I invest of myself the more it matters, and the more I have at stake, the more I care. May believed that care and will are really two aspects of the same experience. Tillich’s term “concern”—as in ultimate concern—is his synonym for care. To him, care is an ontological state of being. Concern is always caring about something. In care, we are required to do something about the situation; we must make some decisions. It is also the stubborn insistence on meaning and the antidote to apathy. Care is a particular type of intentionality shown especially in psychology. “Does not intentionality give us the criterion for defining psychological vitality? The degree of intentionality can define the aliveness of a person, the potential degree of commitment, and the capacity for remaining at the therapeutic task.” An assertion of the self, a commitment, is essential if the self is to have any reality. We attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions we make every day. These decisions take courage. This is why Tillich says courage is ontological—it is essential to our being. To live into the future is to step into the unknown, with no Virgil or Beatrice to guide us. This is what the existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness. The courage to do this is neither the opposite of despair nor the absence of it. Rather, it is the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair. We worry about the “what if…” but we can only live “in spite of…” The “what if” must be faced and then left behind “in spite of” those possibilities. To stay with “what if” is paralysis, and we can only move forward AS IF the possibilities are not certainties. Is not the meaning of faith the courage to trust?

We experience ourselves as a self in relation to objects, and this is the basis for our security. When we feel fear, we are afraid of something, a person or an event that will act upon us—the object of our fear. By contrast, anxiety has no external object. A person in a state of extreme anxiety cannot say what they are afraid of. They cannot locate it outside of themselves. There is often the feeling that they are “going insane” because there is the dread of losing themselves and becoming nothingness. May held that there is a correlation between one’s consciousness of oneself and one’s consciousness of objects. “Since anxiety threatens the basis of selfhood, it is described on the philosophical level as the realization that one may cease to exist as a self.” Paul Tillich phrased this as the threat of “nonbeing.” How do we combat such anxiety? We do it by displacing it from nothing to something. This is what May means by “anxiety seeks to become fear.”

Death, illness and insanity are all illustrations of nonbeing. The normal anxiety that we associate with death is the most universal form of anxiety. But the dissolution of self does not necessarily mean physical death. It may include loss of the psychological or spiritual meaning with which we identify our existence as a self, i.e., the threat of meaninglessness. This was Kierkegaard’s statement that anxiety is the “fear of nothingness, “which in this context is the fear of becoming nothing. The courage to confront and to work thorough our anxiety about the threat of dissolution of the self actually results in our strengthening of our distinction from objects and nonbeing. This is a strengthening of the experience of being a self. As Kierkegaard stated, “The more consciousness, the more self.” In the long run, the courage and will we need to confront our normal anxiety depends on what we regard as valuable in ourselves and in our existence. What we value, and what enables us to confront our anxiety, is what Tillich called our “ultimate concern.” Theologically then, our values reflect our religious stance toward life—“religious being defined as our basic feelings of what is and not of worth. It is a devotion to conviction.” In one sense, our ultimate concern might be thought of as that for which we would be willing to die. But it is actually that with which we will find the courage to live.

At the end of Cervantes masterpiece, the daring but disillusioned Don Quixote finds that there is nothing for him beyond folly but death. Upon hearing his confession, the priest sighs, “Truly he is dying, and truly he is sane.” The disabused knight errant lost the illusions that gave him meaning, and life was no longer bearable. Daring and courage imply the possibility of failure. We are certain of that which is our ultimate concern, but the content of our ultimate concern is uncertain. Courage accepts this uncertainty, Tillich tells us. We take a terrible risk, because if our ultimate concern turns out to be worthless, we lose our meaning. We have given ourselves to something without value. Our faith—our ultimate concern—was misplaced.

When faith is a belief that something is true, doubt will destroy it. But when faith is a way of being ultimately concerned, it is not about facts or scientific research. Doubt is always a part of it. Our faith—as a belief in a fact—was a failure: A god disappears (theism), but in faith—as being ultimately concerned—Divinity (god above god) remains. Existential doubt and faith are poles of the same reality, and are the state of ultimate concern. Anxiety and doubt, then, do not denote a “loss of faith” since serious doubt is actually confirmation of ultimate concern/faith. Anxiety and uncertainty always accompany our confrontation with the infinite. (Because we are not!) We know that we are at the prey of nonbeing. We know that our personal existence is contingent, and that there is no necessity of me. Thus, our anxiety. Courage ignores all of this, but does not deny the anxiety. Courage propels us in spite of our inconsequence. It is a daring affirmation. To confront (or to be grasped by) the infinite takes courage. Faith has within it an act of courage.

Paul Tillich’s ideas in The Courage to Be provided many of the elements of existential psychology. Rollo May considered The Courage to Be the best and most cogent presentation of existentialism as an approach to actual living. One of the basic assumptions in existential psychology is that all of us are centered in ourselves and that anything that threatens that center is an attack on our existence. We will try to preserve that centeredness at all costs, even unhealthy ones. Sometimes we “overcorrect” in our efforts to protect the center of existence, and this adjustment is a way of accepting nonbeing in order that some little being may be retained. It is at this point, when the centeredness that we all require has broken down, that we need the preserving characteristic of self-affirmation. The name Tillich calls this self-affirmation is “courage” and without it, we lose being.


Next: The last installment.

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I like the discussion of concern and care requiring action.

I have maintained for some time that “love”, “caring”, etc., do not mean anything without action.

I have several exes who thought that the emotion was enough. They are exes because it did not carry through to their actions. Oddly enough, one of them was a big fan of a song popular in 1991 (“More Than Words”?) by a metal band that was telling the audience to “show me you love me” and to abandon the lie of just saying the words. Go figure.

If I care about something, I am obligated to act on that caring. Love is not an invisible blanket to wrap around your love ones; you have to use hugs and other actions instead.


I felt large chunks of this as biographical.

I especially feel close to William James.


I think, often times, the search for meaning can be maddening. My question, and it is a serious one, is why should we need to find meaning? I know this sounds a little nihilistic, but do we actually have to know what the meaning of our existence is? There is a cautionary quote by Victor Hugo that I sometimes remind myself. “It is dangerous to peer too closely over the precipice of metaphysics.”
I do understand that this is where courage comes into play, but often I think, shouldn’t we just be? Shouldn’t we just live without driving ourselves crazy, wondering what it all means?
I do think it is beneficial to ponder questions of existence and meaning, to a point. But going beyond that point may not only be dangerous, but also a waste of time. I guess the trick is determining where that, “point,” is located. And I am quite sure that it’s location varies from person to person.


Brilliant! “no matter where you go there you are” as willie Nelson said. A good starting place is where YOU are not others.


Always great things to ponder with you, Cher.
Ramana Maharshi wrote about his enlightenment as a liberation from the ultimate, indescribable fear. I think he woke up in the middle of the night, after many years of Inquiry and meditation, plunged into the deepest fear humans can face – and not pouncing tiger or deranged psychopath fear – the absolute fear that has no real cause outside of its place in our soul, our predicament, if you will. He made it through that, experienced “ego death” and was thereafter free of the less than full embodiment that most of us experience as life.
I think a good many spiritual seekers read things like that and think, “I don’t care how great enlightenment is; I just don’t want to go through THAT!”
But, according to Ramana Maharshi, it’s a test we all have to take at some point, though we have set up every kind of avoidance mechanism we can come up with in order NOT to.


Sometimes we are forced to. This is what is meant by many people in AA, when they say their disease was a blessing in disguise. Their addictions forced them onto a spiritual journey, in order to simply survive from one day to the next. And a wonderful, sometimes painfully slow growth starts. Until one day you look around and think, geez, how did I get here? I kinda like it here!


Cher, I actually haven’t finished reading this but a couple of different thoughts have arisen that I feel I have to post before going on.

Do you remember last Christmas I posted that I just wasn’t into it and was tired of the whole “happy happy merry” thing. You wrote something to me that I’ve thought about a lot. You said something like “act as if.” Just go along with it and pretend to enjoy it, and I might actually start enjoying it. I think maybe this is what you were talking about. You didn’t use the phrase “act as if” but this is a common phrase in addiction recovery programs. If you think you’re going nuts, just act as if everything’s fine. As strange as it sounds, I think there’s some magical power in this idea. I’ve used it before (though I didn’t use it last Christmas).

The Wm. James notions about creativity struck a nerve with me. I have non-fiction publications but have gone through a lot of grief trying to get my novels published. I’ve been through two agents and never found a publisher, though I had some success with short stories in small magazines (no money of course). After much soul searching I have concluded that it’s because of my cowardice. I have been unwilling the plumb the depths that must be reached in order to write really good fiction. I avoid. I write around. I substitute. I stop before it gets too “personal.” When I was younger, like Kilgore, I had a real liking for hallucinogenics and I reached a place that I called “the void.” It terrified me. It really scared me worse than anything. It was a place of utter meaninglessness. Years later, a young apprentice therapist suggested to me that I embrace the void. He was a follower of A.H. Almaas. I’ve read a lot of Almaas since then and I actually overcame my terror of this void, literally by just letting it be the void, and “embracing it” as the guy suggested. Yet what this did for me was make life more comfortable. It didn’t help my writing. I think perhaps I’ve found a safe little island that makes life bearable but where I risk my well-being if I venture beyond the lagoon, so to speak. It sounds like your dilemma as well. I don’t have an answer!


escribacat, try publishing it yourself, electronically (much lower costs to you).

If you email me through my site (you can find it by clicking on my username), I can make a few suggestions to you.

Orcas Island
Orcas Island

“Courage propels us in spite of our inconsequence.”

Great article Cher. I sometimes think we are the only species aware of our own mortality and driven mad by that thought. It would explain some behaviours at least.


The questionable gift of knowing that one day, we will die, is probably one the main reasons we have religion.


@Cher: A fabulous, very dense, and thoughtful post! Now I need to read the first installment!

Impulsively I’ll respond to the self-actualization piece in this by stating that in my early life I was more reactive (filling open slots yawning in my direction)in making life-changing decisions – which finally led to more proactive decisions as self confidence increased. This, with full confidence that my earlier reactive decisions, in retrospect, were based on sound internally based principles which led me through the winding paths of reinvention towards a more satisfying actual principled existence (one which has been more in alignment with my core values). I’m sure luck has played as much a role in this as my own self determination since economic times make life altering decisions easier or more difficult to accomplish. I had the luck of economy going my way at the time.

As life continues, we all waver between treading water, shrinking, or expanding. Now in old age I face the challenges of being increasingly physically unable to do the work I’ve previously found so satisfying, and realize the need to simultaneously pare down and find new outlets which require enough physical energy to slow down accelerating rot; so I think we are all continually “deciding” our next steps in our ever-changing existences and battling within our heads whether or not it’s still possible or worth the effort.

Logging on here, though, is a choice – and exchanging thoughts with people with beautiful minds is truly a joy! Thanks!!


Oh.. I am late. I just read your first installment and commented I will be back for this after supper. But thank you for this. I need it right now.


Cher, in a true test of courage, my very long and — I hoped — thought-through reply to you has just disappeared into the ether and I was silly enough NOT to write it in word or to save as I went along. I doubt that I’ll be able to reproduce it, but I’ll try to get the gist of it down.

What I wanted to say was that I was very taken with the concepts of attention and intention that you raised in your article. And that brings up the issue of the full scale cultural assault that seems to be going on against the value of intention and attention. When kids are raised in an environment of 15 second TV ads, and when the average length of a shot in a video meant for a young audience is one second, when texts are limited to 140 characters, how is one’s attention supposed to be focused on anything of real substance?

This is one area in which Tillich, James, Nietzsche and others had a real advantage. Can you imagine the long, silent evenings in which they could ponder, converse or read without interruption?

My son is teaching college algebra now and he tells me that when he’s working with students 1:1, their eyes wander all over the room. They take every cell phone call that comes in, and respond to every text. On the other end of the spectrum, the grad students often spend 7- 10 hours on ONE problem! And quite of number of them are Chinese or Korean.

So, when it comes to matters of faith and spirituality how are they going to be able to focus attention or be intentional? Is is any wonder that the churches with the most entertaining services are the best attended?

I suppose this is why so many of us instinctively recoil from fundie religionists. They’ve taken all the shortcuts. Everything is easy and feel-good. They’re like runners who hopped into the marathon in the last half mile and claimed victory. They get all the goodies without the price tag — doubt.

Faith that is characterized by absolute certitude always makes me nervous. Scratch the surface and there is delusion.

I love the phrase that you use: “Faith is a way of being ultimately concerned.” The knife’s edge of doubt is not a comfortable or easy place to be, but it is the place of integrity. As you said, one god dies, but “deum de deo” lives.

The crossroads of doubt and faith, of will and circumstance are not a zone of unmitigated assurance. In fact, people who have gone there have not always lived to see the promised land. But they’ve been our guides in living the life of courage.


I would offer this post to some psych majors I have met as proof that they don’t know what tha Hell they are talking about!

Excellent post Cher. Will there be a part 3?


I’m still working myself through the first one, but how’d you do that with your featured image?



First of all, let me applaud you on your thoroughness and how well you brought all the different concepts together in your essay, well done.

Second, you have provided so much food for thought, and I learned quite a bit from these two pieces…am not really sure what I’m thinking, maybe I will have to wait until I read the last installment, to really formulate my thoughts. I’m going to have to take some time to digest the reading.

Third, THIS is WHY I love forums such as this! And why I became a huge fan of yours!

I can’t wait to read the next installment!

Haruko Haruhara

Cher’s a rock star! 😛