Category Archives: New Existentialist Blog

Privilege, Existential Guilt, and Responsibility

Nanjing Masacre Museum. Photo taken by Louis Hoffman

As I write this, it has been 12-years since I obtained my PhD in clinical psychology. In many ways, I feel quite proud of what was accomplished during this year; in other ways I struggle with the existential guilt associated with the privilege that allowed for that success. I write this as I near the end of my term as president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology. The focus of my presidency was on multiculturalism and diversity. Yet, this piece was inspired in part by an email I received recently confronting me on my own mistake when, in a recent article I wrote, I easily focused on the accomplishments and status of two White males instead of choosing to be more inclusive in the people I identified. I am very appreciative of that feedback. Even though diversity is one of the primary passions of my career, I am regularly humbled by my mistakes and how much I have yet to learn.

Existential Guilt
Existential guilt can be thought of as referring to when one lives inauthentically, or fails to seek out achieving one’s potential. However, it can also be understood as something connected deeply to human nature (i.e., something ontological) or who one is as a person. Tillich (1957) distinguishes between a more particular guilt and the guilt not from particular acts, but one’s participation in a larger system:

The citizens of a city are not guilty of the crimes committed in their city; but they are guilty as participants in the destiny of [humanity] as a whole and in the destiny of their city in particular…. They are guilty, not of committing the crimes of which their group is accused, but of contributing to the destiny in which these crimes happened. (p. 58)

May (1961), however, cautions that one should not be too judgmental about deserving this guilt:

…because of this interplay of conscious and unconscious factors in guilt and the impossibility of legalistic blame, we are forced into an attitude of acceptance of the universal human situation and a recognition of the participation of every one of us in man’s [sic] inhumanity to man [sic]. (p. 50).

Existential Guilt and Responsibility

The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won. Absurdity challenges every ethics; but also the finished rationalization of the real would leave no room for ethics; it is because man’s [sic] condition is ambiguous that he [sic] seeks, through failure and outrageousness, to save his [sic] existence.  (de Beauvior, 1948, p. 129)

If, as Tillich points out, one cannot escape being existentially guilty and, as May points out, one should not be too harsh on oneself about this, what does this mean? It seems the easiest choice would be to become cynical, apathetic, or both. Yet, from an existential perspective, this is seen as a call to live more responsibility in the face of one’s guilt. Existential thinkers are often creating meaning out of paradox, and it is often from the tension of these seeming contradictions that the deepest forms of meaning emerge.

Tom Greening addresses this beautifully:

I finally went to a concentration camp for the first time in my life last August… I wanted to do that, and am glad I did. It was a very powerful experience. It sort of felt like paying one’s existential dues… if you are going to be alive in the 20th or 21st century, that you are going to claim to be alive and had lived in that time, then what should you be aware of, or in touch with?… There are a whole bunch of existential facts that one ought to really… embrace, or acknowledge, even feel existential guilt about. (as cited in Claypool, 2010, p. 110)

One’s guilt is not their final condemnation, but rather it is what frees one to respond authentically and responsibly to the inevitability of failure in one’s limited, finite state. When the redemptive purpose of guilt is embraced, it is possible to no longer experience this as a burden, but rather a positive element of responsibility.

Existential Responsibility and Privilege
My life has been one of privilege, and for this, I gladly experience existential guilt. Guilt can be a healthier alternative to the other possibilities of shame or fear. Many people of privilege, when recognizing how their privilege has benefitted them and harmed others, feel a sense a shame. This can be a normal and even healthy phase in one’s cultural identity development. However, if stuck in shame, it can lead to defensiveness or an inability to respond. Similarly, many people of privilege live in fear of being identified as a “racist” or “sexist.” However, as Granger (2013) point out, fear is often the root of many forms of racism, particularly microaggressions. When one’s fear and guilt is embraced, they are freed to become part of a powerful personal transformation.

Guilt has the potential to be redemptive in the context of privilege. If guilt is embraced it can motivate individuals to live responsibly with the reality of privilege.

Conclusion

What we experience as an essential quality of authenticity is humility, of allowing ourselves to not know and be humbled by the not knowing for others and ourselves. (Heery, 2009)

I could never identify, let alone reject, all of my privilege. Privilege is such a thing that one has it, even when it is not recognized. If individuals can face their prilivege directly (i.e., zhi mian), then they can be empowered to use their existential guilt in a way to counteract their privilege. Thus, the calling is to reduce and eliminate privilege where one can and, when one cannot, to use it honestly, responsibly, and authentically.

References
Claypool, T. (2010). On becoming an existential psychologist: Journeys of contemporary leaders. ProQuest, UMI Dissertation Publishing (3412340).

deBeauvior, S. (1948). The ethics of ambiguity (B. Frechtmsn, Trans.). New York, NY: Citadel Press.

Granger, N. , Jr., (2013, February 21). The future of existential psychology: Fear the boogie man, not the negro. Retrieved from https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/02-21-13.

Heery, M. (2009). Global authenticity. In L. Hoffman, M. Yang, F. J. Kaklauskas, & A. Chan (Eds.), Existential psychology east-west (pp. 205-219). Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

May, R. (1961). The meaning of the Oedipus myth. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 1, 44-52.

Tillich, P. (1957). Systematic theology (Vol. 2). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


An earlier version of this was published on the New Existentialist Blog (https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/07-23-13/). This version contains minor changes.

Love and Other Emotions: Reflections from the Novel The Girlfriend Project (Originally Published on the New Existentialist Blog)

This review was originally published in the New Existentialist Blog: https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/07-22-14/. It is reposted here in its entirety. 

The Girlfriend Project (2014) by Jason Dias is not your typical novel about love. Although it could be considered a romantic novel given that its focus is a love story, the plot is more existential in nature. Embedded in this unlikely love story is an exploration of the nature of love and other emotions. And love takes center stage.

Ernest has been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder and appears to accept this diagnosis as it explains many of his life challenges. Emotions, especially love, befuddle him. His recognition of emotions is not through the usual subjective process, but instead through a rather detached, somewhat objective analysis of his behavior. From his wife and his therapist, he learns to identify many emotions even if he does not emotionally identify with them.

At the beginning of the novel, Ernest characterizes himself as rather dependent upon his wife, who dies early in the novel. Because of his wife’s encouragement from before her death, he agrees to enter therapy after she dies. He does so and finds a therapist that appears to be a pretty good match.

Upon encouragement from this new therapist, he begins considering dating. However, Ernest clearly does not have much confidence or know-how in the dating department. He hires Jenny, a down-on-her-luck waitress to be his girlfriend. Jenny is attractive and socially more skilled, but also has struggled in her own pursuits of love. Out of desperation from her current financial and life predicaments, she agrees. From this very unusual situation, the love story begins.

Ernest and Jenny’s relationship traverses several unexpected twists that lead Ernest into an exploration of his childhood and his relationship with his wife. Meanwhile, Jenny has a dramatic encounter with a previous lover, which introduces an element of action to the novel. With these elements, Dias is able to keep the reader engaged at more than just the psychological level.

What is Love?
The exploration of the meaning of love has almost become cliché. Yet, this question is so essential or our very existence that it does not wear old as with many clichés—at least not when explored with sufficient psychological depth, as Dias does. But Dias adds an interesting twist: How do we understand, know, and experience love without the typical emotional understanding that most people rely upon.

Dias begins his exploration of love by taking away the most common guide to recognizing it: our subjective emotional experience. He also calls into question the many overly simplistic answers often offered by the cynics. Dias, through Ernest, recognizes that there is something important in love, even if the particular lesson eludes him. Although Ernest seems resigned that he will never know or understand love, he continues in the pursuit, even if not recognizing that it is love he is pursuing.

The description of the book says that it is an answer to Camus’s The Stranger. In a similar way to how Camus encourages the reader to examine what it means to be human, Dias lures the reader into examining what it is that they consider love. In the end, Ernest still may not understand love, but he has become convinced that it exists.

Conclusion
Many existential writers, at the end of their pursuit of meaning, seem to end up with answers in the genre of love, compassion, and relationship. Rarely, however, are the answers clear. Indeed, love may never be clear. It is at once the most compelling and elusive of the emotions. Dias, as a good existentialist, does not pretend to have solved the problem of love. He does, however, provide us with some important paths to explore in its pursuits. He also leaves us with the belief that love, even if we cannot fully comprehend what it is, is well worth pursing.

This is a novel well worth the time for those interested in existential psychology. Or even those just interested in examining the nature of love.

— Louis Hoffman

Read more New Existentialist Blogs by Louis Hoffman

The Proper Use of Tradition and Scholarly Authority (Originally a New Existentialists Blog)

This post was originally a New Existentialist Blog by Louis Hoffman, PhD. It is reposted here in its entirety from: https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/07-01-14/.

Quick to kindle, quick to calm down, an even quick to grow decadent, men of letters [i.e., a type of scholar] can always find reasons and precedents from the classics to justify their shifts of allegiance. (Lu Xun, 1931/2003)

One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. (Nietzsche, 1892/1966)

The impulse in contemporary times, and really through all of history, is to either vilify or idealize history, tradition, and the scholars of old. We see this in our classroom, our political debates, our movies, and our books and journals. Yet, whether the impulse is to vilify or glorify, such simplistic ways of engaging tradition and history are problematic and potentially destructive.

I have long appreciated the approach of Lu Xun, an influential Chinese literary figure of the early to mid 20th century, in regard to this issue. However, as I have been working through a four-volume collection of his works, this appreciation has deepened. Lu Xun was known as a powerful critic of the cultural problems of China during his life, but this really only touches the surface of Lu Xun’s thought and work.

Lu Xun (1931/2003) wrote, “The sole hope of development for our literature lies in understanding the old and seeing the new, in comprehending the past and deducing the future” (pp. 138-139). Similarly, he was highly critical of those who were critical or defensive of tradition without understanding its history. Before we can critique any period and any scholarship or tradition from the beginning of recorded history through contemporary times, we must first seek to understand. This, too often, is missing. We are quick to debate and assert a correct position, slow to ask questions and seek to understand. And even our questions, when they are asked, are really just trickery, pretending to seek understanding while seeking to find a weakness in the position of the other. Such processes serve no constructive purposes; they only tear down and reinforce what we believe we know to be truth.

The Use of Idols

All those from ancient times till now who hold no definitive views and have no guiding principle for the changes they advocate, but make use of the arguments of different schools, deserve to be called hooligans. Take a Shanghai hooligan. If he sees a man and a woman from the country walking together, he calls out, “Hey! You’re immoral—you’ve broken the law!” Here he uses Chinese law. If a peasant makes water by the roadside he shouts, “Hey! That’s not allowed. You’ve broken the law, and deserve to be locked up!” Here he is using foreign law. But in the end the law can go by the board—if you grease his palm he will let the matter drop. (Lu Xun, 1931/2003, pp. 134-135)

I grew up in a conservative religious environment, and my early studies of psychology, philosophy, and theology began in this context. From early on, I learned the law well. Yet, I also quickly became troubled by it. I remember watching it being used to harm others and justify oneself, which to me seemed inconsistent with the deeper messages of grace. It seemed there were many ways to condemn, but few routes to understanding and forgiveness. While I believe hypocrisy to be a given for all people, as no human being can live up to what they profess or even develop a complete and coherent belief system, this hypocrisy for me was too great. It was not so much the hypocrisy, but the way the hypocrisy was used and the hurt it caused.

Yet, I’ve seen these patterns recreated in each new spiritual and intellectual home that I have found, even my beloved existential and humanistic psychology. In my own approach to existential psychology, I see love, compassion, and relationship as essential foundations. Yet, too often, I have seen “humanistic” and “existential” used as a weapon. Most often, this occurs when certain important figures in the history of our movement become elevated to the level of becoming idols. I have seen this occur with Heidegger, Rollo May, James Bugental, and other leaders in our field. I have seen our students and early career professionals fearful to present or even speak up at conferences because they fear they will be harshly criticized for not having the orthodox interpretation of one of these figures.

This is a tragedy worthy of one of Nietzsche’s tirades. We dishonor those early influential thinkers in our movement when we turn them into idols. We distort the message they were bringing to us and the message they lived in their lives. I believe (and hope) that if these figures were around today that their harshest critiques would be of the way we over-revere their contributions. We love and honor our heroes when we recognize their humanity. To be revered as an idol or infallible scholar is much less of an honor than to be revered as a human who within all the limitations of being human rose to contribute a unique voice and make an important, though imperfect, contribution worthy of a lasting influence on the history of humankind. When we look closely, the heroes of existential and humanistic psychology certainly were “human, all too human.”

Conclusion
I have long found it interesting that many outside of existential and humanistic psychology view them as outdated and label them as “dead theories” because they believe they have not changed since their inception. Too often, there is some truth to this; we often use historical ideas and figures as the measure or standard of truth. Yet, arguably more than any other major school of psychology, such a belief or process contradicts our theory.

Our history, tradition, and influential early voices are an essential foundation to the contemporary humanistic and existential psychology movement. Yet, if we treat them like idols or view their ideas as beyond reproach, they become our greatest and most powerful adversary. Even our good values hold the potential of evil when we become bound to them and cling to them so closely that we can no longer properly see them.

Lu Xun is a good model for us. Although he is known more for his critiquing of the culture and ideas of his time, a closer reading shows that he greatly values history and tradition. He honored and revered his culture and the people of China. Yet, he was very critical when people became bound to their ideas. There must be balance. We must revere, but not over-revere; we must honor, but not create idols; we must critique, but not destroy; we must preserve, but not stagnate. This honors history and tradition. Yet, many who seek to preserve tradition destroy it by holding on too tightly. We must let our history be freer than this.

References
Lu Xun (2003). A glance at Shanghai literature. In Y. Xianyia & G. Yang, Ed. & Trans.), Lu Xun: Selected works (Vol. 3; pp. 127-141). Beijing, China: Foreign Language Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1966). Thus spoke Zarathustra: A work for none and all (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published in 1892)

— Louis Hoffman

Read more New Existentialist Blogs by Louis Hoffman