ROLLO MAY: MYTH AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGION

Betty Meyer

(For comments by Rollo May during a 1968 "Wine Cellar" conversation on the question: "Does Modern Man Need Myth?")

The psychoanalyst, Rollo May, approached the whole meaning of  myth in a different way from the other ARC founders we have heard about today.   Rollo was an active and interactive Fellow who attended every meeting he could.  In a letter written in 1986, he said:   "It was indeed a pleasure to be at an ARC meeting.  We’ve developed a kind of friendship in our meetings and in our discussions about our financial struggles, and that’s one of the reasons I love the group and the members of it.”   I remember him telling me once,   "Betty, I hope ARC never has a lot of money, that it will always remain small."  

But this has been an ongoing issue:  should we remain small and elite, or  aspire to be larger and democratic?  Richard Underwood and I once flew to Washington to present a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts for an ARC program to be called, “America Was Promises.”  We wanted it to be part of the bicentennial celebration.  But we were told that ARC is too elitist and too isolated from the general public. Our proposal was rejected. Other people, however,  maintain that exactly because we have concentrated on creative individuals, we have been able to envision the culture a decade ahead, and they think that, in fact,  we have affected that culture.

I live next door to a retired Boston University professor who has been bemoaning the fact that the humanities he gave his life to, in teaching,  are in decline in college curricula today.   A decade ago, Rollo wrote,  "In a class of English Literature in a western university, there are  five students, while across the hall in the graduate courses in computer science, there are three hundred.  We seem to have forgotten Max Frisch’s  statement that  ‘technology is the knack of arranging the world so we do not experience it.’   It is the what of human existence rather than the how for which we are famished."

Rollo May was born in Ada, Ohio in 1909 and grew up in Marine City, Michigan.  He attended Oberlin College,  Union Theological Seminary in New York City and received his PhD from  Columbia University summa cum laude, writing his thesis on “The Meaning of Anxiety.”  After his Oberlin graduation, he roamed the backwoods of Poland, studying and painting non-academic country people. He said, "My childhood in Michigan had given me a sufficient dose of anti-intellectualism. It made sense on the frontier.  I grew up to be afraid of thinking too much."  (I was interested later to hear Robert Motherwell say about ARC one time, and he was a Fellow, “Well -- it is a little too academic.”   So you see, we always have differing opinions about  ARC.) 

After graduation, May taught briefly at the American College in Salonika, Greece, and attended a course with Alfred Adler, who was to greatly affect his professional career.  After he came home from abroad, he entered Union Seminary where he met Paul Tillich, who was also to affect him.

Rollo writes,  

I first met Paul Tillich in January of 1934.  The encounter was anonymous for both of us.  As I had come out of my room at Hastings Hall, I saw at the far end of the corridor a solitary man, hesitant and bewildered, making his way in my direction.   Since it was the interim between semesters, all other students were gone.  The hall  was empty and silent except for him and me, and I can still recall his countenance today -- a large leonine head with a shock of bushy hair over a high forehead of high color, and a face constructed not in curves, but in planes -- like a portrait by Cezanne.  Well, I helped  him find the room  he was looking for, and a week after our encounter in the hall, I saw on the bulletin board a notice of a series of lectures to be given by a German scholar.  His name meant nothing to me then , but oh, the titles:  “The Spiritual Implications of Psychoanalysis”  and  “The Religious Meaning of Modern Art”--they were irresistible.

In 1938, Rollo married  Florence de Frees, and together they had two daughters and a son.  He served a parish in Montclair, New Jersey briefly, but in 1946 he opened a private psycho-analytic practice of his own.  Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis and  lay for two years in a bed in  a sanitarium on Lake Saranac.   He writes of his morbid self-pity and how he overcame it.

Later he taught at New York University and was a visiting professor at Harvard and Princeton and received the Gold Medal of the American Psychological Association and the Ralph Emerson Award by Phi Beta Kappa.  Clement Reeds, in his book, The Psychology of Rollo May, says:  “Rollo was the major representative of the American movement in existential psychology.  He was the first to strongly encourage dialogue between philosophers and psychologists.” 

Rollo said, Therapists belong to a strange profession.  It is partly religion; we do deal with peoples’ spiritual questions, and as father confessors, I guess we’ve taken on the mantle of priests.  But psychoanalysis is also a science.  Freud’s contribution was to make it teachable.   But this is the inseparable part:  it is friendship.  No matter how many forms of valium or librium we invent, it will not  basically raise out  the troubles  of the human brain.  Why do people seek out a therapist? Because they feel bereft of a faith, without any reliable structure.

Each of us, I daresay, sometimes feels like a passenger in a rowboat loose upon the ocean without any compass, we think,  or sense of direction, and we feel a  storm coming up.  Listen to what Rollo wrote over a decade ago:   "As long as the highest goal in America remains making money, as long as we teach no ethics in home or government, as long as we are not inspired to form a philosophy of life,  and the TV is overloaded with aggression and sex with no mentors in learning how to love, that long will there continue to be a frightening depression and suicide.  This is especially important as we seek to give meaning to our lives, as we stand on the threshold of  a new century.  Science and humanism must join together to respond to a cry for help, a cry for myth.   Rollo worked on his book, The Cry for Myth for thirty years, writing other books in the meantime, but he always came back, after putting it aside,  to his book on myth.

 We all remember Joseph Campbell’s talks on TV  and his books, but his talk was of the myths of China and India and Asia and Asia Minor. Rollo’s concern was at home; he was convinced that the reason for the birth and development of psychoanalysis was that western society had lost its myth, which he believed to be the language of psychoanalysis, and he wanted to search out the contemporary American myth.

What is a myth?  When I was young, I was taught, like others, that it is a fib. Today people are begging for guidance from astrologers, from cults, they are grasping at superstitions.   I wonder what their definition of myth would be. Rollo’s definition is:  Myth is a story which makes sense in a senseless world , like a beam that holds the house together.  Myths give us relief from neurotic guilt and excessive anxiety.  They are self-interpretations of our inner selves in relation to the outside world.  The person without a myth is a person without a home.  Remember Willy Loman  in  The Death of a Salesman:   “We don’t know who we are.”  Or the play,  Waiting for Godot.  Or Alex Haley, reminding us of our roots.  When one is exiled from a structure, from a story, from a myth, one enters solitude.

Rollo May says that "each of us accumulates a myth of our own from our family , our school experiences, our dream lives,  and our relationships.  We develop a story that makes sense to us and gives a structure to our lives." And then this conscious myth is balanced in our subconscious.  If this is true, then each individual myth is bound to be different from the myths of others, but in general, Rollo says, "They turn out to be variations on classical myths."

Because we are lonely as individuals, we then want to collectively represent ourselves.  We end up adopting a hero, because we hunger for models as standards of action, as ethics  in flesh and bones, just like we are. Consider Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed and, Rollo says, "the eternal amazing myth of Jesus, with its celebrative rituals which are the physical expressions of myth -- baptism, communion, the giving of gifts -- with the village church itself standing as a community myth.  We enjoy celebrating a communal myth together.  But each successive generation will reinterpet myth to fit the new aspects and needs of the culture.  And memory is our internal studio to do this." 

So let’s look at what Rollo May says about some American myths.  "It is the middle west that is the birthplace of  most American myths.  The east can only sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep."  (Remember Rollo is from the middle west.) "The American frontiersman, fresh from Europe whose myths came from the Middle Ages, began early to transform Europe’s myths into distinctly American ones.   The continuous moving, moving further and further west, the excessive violence, the rootlessness, all contributed to make the frontiersman feel  isolated and alone.  The evil he saw around him was more than he could deal with, and he thought maybe God would work with Satan to bring good out of evil." (May himself believed this, that redemption can come  from everything that happens, evil included.   He and Tillich differed on this.  Maybe because of Tillich’s experiences with the Nazis, he believed that evil was evil, and good will not come from it.)  But the  frontiersman was  comforted by tales of  Robin Hood and the Lone Ranger:  it was all right to rob from the rich and give to the poor;  Satan was God’s co-worker.  Any change was assumed to be good -- the New Frontier, the New Deal, the New Mexico -- “in every day in every way I am getting better and better.”  The myth of rugged individualism, not known in the Middle Ages, except, maybe, in the hermits, grew rapidly.  It is evident in Whitman’s Song of Myself;  and even in revivalism, many of us grew up singing, “I come to the garden alone.”  The Horatio Alger myth told people that God sends the wealth, and therefore, the man of wealth must be the good man that God approves of:  the organization man.  And this is a lasting myth. President Reagan said:  “I want to see, above all else, that this country remains a country where someone can always get rich.”

Let’s take The Great Gatsby  as an example of American myth   It was when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his novel that the myth began to shake a little.  For the first time, there were right and wrong ways to get rich,  and the promised land didn’t have a clear definition.  At the end, at Gatsby’s funeral, nobody came.  The 1930 crash and depression forced Americans to look at reality and their alienation from the better gifts of life.  The Jazz Age had thought it had a right to everything:  you just have to sell yourself;   God is a man in the gray flannel suit.  But after George Wilson’s wife was killed in a car accident, someone says, “In a time like this, George, a man needs a church.”   But Fitzgerald  believed that it is not man who has abandoned God; but God who has deserted man in an uninhabitable, absurd, materialistic world. 

Today we live in a vacuum of myth.  Are there any answers to shed light on this void?  Rollo says "there will be no answers until there is such a yearning,  a yearning that is  strong enough that a myth will be formed by the endeavor to make sense  of it all.  People will begin then  to organize the experience,  to put this together and that together to give a unity, a structure, or  a myth."  It may be an old one reinterpreted, or it may be the emergence of an entirely new one.  Freud spoke of myths as being magnificent in their indefiniteness, that therein lies their value.  When they are kept open and growing,  then they become the garment of mystery.  

We are confronting a new age, but we are also confronting a new life style.  "Our religious task," Rollo says, "will be not only to move from the life style of the city, the nation, and to internationalism but to our particular globe,  to the cosmosMy faith and hope is that this new religious outlook will be interracial and intersexist.  I believe that it will be an expansion for all of us, not to imprison these people any longer, but to recognize them as human beings the same as we."  This is to accept what Tillich demanded: a new being.

"The gods of monotheism of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are being superseded, whether we like it or not, by a new polytheism. The day of my god against yours is gone, I hope, forever.  This is a healing for my spirit.  This is what salvation means."  

Rollo May’s devotional practice was interesting to me, because I struggle with this.  Every time I try to have morning devotions, I get very critical of what I am reading. Rollo practiced his devotions before he began his work by having some Christian elements, some Buddhist elements, some Hindu elements, and this meant he was a part of the larger picture. "But it would be surprising if I could cut off my own cultural body, my Protestant Christian background, nor would I want to.  Images from my background come to me, and I am receptive to them."  

So we are in a transitional period, aren’t we?    If we use this new gestalt of polytheism, can we make it a good transition?  Rollo May  thinks so.  It is a movement toward a new unity, a new possibility.  "When the ancients reached the limits of rationality, when they could see only a holy void, an inscrutable mystery,  they turned to myth for meaning." 

"I am aware that something continually creative is going on now, something fascinating to watch and  experience, something I cannot predict, something that often surprises me with its fecundity.  It is a benign chaos challenging us to take part in giving it form, structure, myth. I believe that the techniques of psychoanalysis will keep the new myth concrete and that my Protestant heritage will keep it aware of the social problems in the world and in the marketplace." And I say:  may the cry for myth be heard. 

Betty Meyer, formerly Associate Professor at Crane Theological School at Tufts University, has served in many editorial positions, including her current position as editor of Faith and Form, the AIA Journal on Religious Architecture.  She was recently elected to Honorary Membership in the American Institute of Architects.  She is an ARC Fellow,  recently appointed as ARC historian, a member of the Board of Directors,  and a longtime friend and admirer of Rollo May.

 

             

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