Rollo May

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1909 - 1994
Dr. C. George Boeree
Rollo May was born April 21, 1909, in Ada, Ohio.  His childhood was not particularly pleasant:  His parents didn’t get along and eventually divorced, and his sister had a psychotic breakdown. After a brief stint at Michigan State (he was asked to leave because of his involvement with a radical student magazine), he attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he received his bachelors degree. After graduation, he went to Greece, where he taught English at Anatolia College for three years.  During this period, he also spent time as an itinerant artist and even studied briefly with Alfred Adler. When he returned to the US, he entered Union Theological Seminary and became friends with one of his teachers, Paul Tillich, the existentialist theologian, who would have a profound effect on his thinking.  May received his BD in 1938. May suffered from tuberculosis, and had to spend three years in a sanatorium.  This was probably the turning point of his life.  While he faced the possibility of death, he also filled his empty hours with reading.  Among the literature he read were the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish religious writer who inspired much of the existential movement, and provided the inspiration for May’s theory. He went on to study psychoanalysis at White Institute, where he met people such as Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm.  And finally, he went to Columbia University in New York, where in 1949 he received the first PhD in clinical psychology that institution ever awarded. After receiving his PhD, he went on to teach at a variety of top schools.  In 1958, he edited, with Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger, the book Existence, which introduced existential psychology to the US.  He spent the last years of his life in Tiburon, California, until he died in October of 1994. [pic]

Rollo May is the best known American existential psychologist.  Much of his thinking can be understood by reading about existentialism in general, and the overlap between his ideas and the ideas of Ludwig Binswanger is great.  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 uses some traditional existential terms slightly differently than others, and invents new words for some of existentialism’s old ideas. Destiny, for example, is roughly the same as thrownness combined with fallenness.  It is that part of our lives that is determined for us, our raw materials, if you like, for the project of creating our lives.  Another example is the word courage, which he uses more often than the traditional term "authenticity" to mean facing one’s anxiety and rising above it. He is also the only existential psychologist I’m aware of who discusses certain “stages” (not in the strict Freudian sense, of course) of development: Innocence -- the pre-egoic, pre-self-conscious stage of the infant. The innocent is premoral, i.e. is neither bad nor good.  Like a wild animal who kills to eat, the innocent is only doing what he or she must do.  But an innocent does have a degree of will in the sense of a drive to fulfil their needs! Rebellion -- the childhood and adolescent stage of developing one’s ego or self-consciousness by means of contrast with adults, from the “no” of the two year old to the “no way” of the teenager.  The rebellious person wants freedom, but has as yet no full understanding of the responsibility that goes with it.  The teenager may want to spend their allowance in any way they choose -- yet they still expect the parent to provide the money, and will complain about unfairness if they don't get it! Ordinary -- the normal adult ego, conventional and a little boring, perhaps.  They have learned responsibility, but find it too demanding, and so seek refuge in conformity and traditional...
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