Man's Search for Himself

Man's Search for Himself book cover by Rollo May
Consciousness makes us human and anxious.

People who live as “hollow men” can endure the monotony only by an occasional blowoff—or at least by identifying with someone else’s blowoff.

The experience of emptiness, rather, generally comes from people’s feeling that they are powerless to do anything effective about their lives or the world they live in.

Apathy and lack of feeling are also defenses against anxiety. When a person continually faces dangers he is powerless to overcome, his final line of defense is at last to avoid even feeling the dangers.

Every human being gets much of his sense of his own reality out of what others say to him and think about him. But many modern people have gone so far in their dependence on others for their feeling of reality that they are afraid that without it they would lose the sense of their own existence.

The great bulk of our anxiety comes when some value we hold essential to our existence as selves is threatened.

That is to say, the stronger our consciousness of ourselves, the more we can take a stand against and overcome anxiety.

We have been taught to strive to get ahead of the next man, but actually today one’s success depends much more on how well one learns to work with one’s fellow workers.

Every organism has one and only one central need in life, to fulfill its own potentialities.

Self-inflation and conceit are generally the external signs of inner emptiness and self-doubt; a show of pride is one of the most common covers for anxiety.

Consciousness of self actually expands our control of our lives, and with that expanded power comes the capacity to let ourselves go. This is the truth behind the seeming paradox, that the more consciousness of one’s self one has, the more spontaneous and creative one can be at the same time.

If one looks honestly into himself, does he not find that most of what he thinks he wants is just routine—like fish on Friday; or that what he wants is what he thinks he should want—like being a success in his work; or wants to want—like loving his neighbor?

Many people keep busy all the time as a way of covering up anxiety; their activism is a way of running from themselves.

Indeed it is not possible for a human being to give up his freedom without something coming in to restore the inner balance—something arising from inner freedom when his outer freedom is denied—and this something is hatred for his conqueror.

Hating or resenting is often the person’s only way to keep from committing psychological or spiritual suicide.

In real life one does not get rid of hatred and resentment this way; one generally displaces the emotions on other people, or turns them inward in self-hate.

That consciousness of self and freedom go together is shown in the fact that the less self-awareness a person has, the more he is unfree.

No one will die for the negative side of a debate, or for any other negation. A person may die for a lost cause, but he is dying for very powerful positive values, such as his own dignity and integrity.

There is such a thing as psychological suicide in which one does not take his own life by a given act, but dies because he has chosen—perhaps without being entirely aware of it—not to live.

Like freedom and the other aspects of man’s consciousness of self, ethical awareness is gained only at the price of inner conflict and anxiety.

Strange as it sounds, then, the powers of these people to achieve goodness and the joy which goes with it are diminished. And since happiness is not the reward of virtue, as Spinoza remarked, but virtue itself, the person who surrenders his ethical autonomy has relinquished to the same degree his power to attain virtue and happiness.

Conscience, rather, is one’s capacity to tap one’s own deeper levels of insight, ethical sensitivity and awareness, in which tradition and immediate experience are not opposed to each other but interrelated.

An ethical act, then, must be an action chosen and affirmed by the person doing it, an act which is an expression of his inward motives and attitudes.

For creating external works, in art, business or what not, and creating one’s self—that is, developing one’s capacities, becoming freer and more responsible—are two aspects of the same process.

Courage is required not only in a person’s occasional crucial decision for his own freedom, but in the little hour-to-hour decisions which place the bricks in the structure of his building of himself into a person who acts with freedom and responsibility.

It is not so bad to be defeated because the enemy is stronger, or even to be defeated because one didn’t fight; but to know one was a coward because one chose to sell out his strength to get along with the victor—this betrayal of one’s self is the bitterest pill of all.

Sham and hypocrisy are greater deterrents to learning to love than is outright hostility, for at least the latter may be honest and can then be worked with.

When “love” is engaged in for the purpose of vanquishing loneliness, it accomplishes its purpose only at the price of increased emptiness for both persons.

The more a person lacks self-awareness, the more he is prey to anxiety and irrational anger and resentment: and while anger generally blocks us from using our more subtle intuitive means of sensing truth, anxiety always blocks us.

The more a person is able to direct his life consciously, the more he can use time for constructive benefits. The more, however, that he is conformist, unfree, undifferentiated, the more, that is, he works not by choice but by compulsion, the more he is then the object of quantitative time.

Every human being experiences some boredom; a great deal of one’s work, for example, must be gone through more or less by routine; but it becomes unendurable only when it has not been freely chosen or affirmed by one’s self as necessary for the attainment of some greater goal.

Thus the person who can die courageously at thirty—who has attained a degree of freedom and differentiation that he can face courageously the necessity of giving up his life—is more mature than the person who on his deathbed at eighty cringes and begs still to be shielded from reality.

The qualities of freedom, responsibility, courage, love and inner integrity are ideal qualities, never perfectly realized by anyone, but they are the psychological goals which give meaning to our movement toward integration.