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.