Our collective emptiness

I recently bought a book by an author I’m totally enthralled with; Rollo May. He was an influential existential psychologist who was heavily influenced by the works of Erich Fromm and Otto Rank, and as such is widely considered a humanist. He was also the peer of Alfred Adler.

I came across some of his quotes that compelled me to buy the book I’m currently reading, ” Man’s Search for Himself” in which he probes the causes of loneliness and emptiness, both on an individual level and societal. Some shorter excerpts follow;

“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it’s conformity.” 

“Finding the center of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men. … One person with indigenous inner strength exercises a great calming effect on panic among people around him. This is what our society needs — not new ideas and inventions; important as these are, and not geniuses and supermen, but persons who can “be”, that is, persons who have a center of strength within themselves.”

“It is an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when they have lost their way.”

“Many people suffer from the fear of finding oneself alone, and so they don’t find themselves at all.” ( which is actually a quote by André Gide cited by May in aforementioned book.)


See?! 🙂 I don’t know about you, but I revel in digging into the core of issues to find where these stem from. For the longest time, I’ve been fixated with what makes up the fabric of cultures and societies. For instance, I find the Swedish society, of which I’m a native, largely introverted and aloof. On the other hand, I find the Somali culture – from which I hail- to be spontaneous,codependent and a want of structure. The reason why this is important to me is that, knowing the individualistic traits reveal a society’s strength and its’ weakness in the same vein. This can be imperative in understanding social ailments and adapt solutions that resonate with the innate nature of the society as a whole, but also that of the individual.

Anyhoo, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll share some passages that struck a chord with me, but I ,like, tots recommend you buy it :p


¹What are the major,inner problems of people in our day?When we look beneath the outward occasions for people’s disturbances,such as the threat of war,the draft and economic uncertainty, what do we find are the underlying conflicts? To be sure, the symptoms of disturbance which people describe, in our age as in any other, are unhappiness, inability to decide about marriage or vocations,general despair and meaninglessness in their lives, and so on. But what underlies these symptoms?

[…] It may sound surprising when I say, on the basis of my own clinical practice as well as that of my psychological and psychiatric colleagues, that the chief problem of people in the middle decade of the twentieth century is emptiness. By that I mean not only that many people do not know what they want; they often do not have any clear idea of what they feel. When they talk about lack of autonomy, or lament their inability to make decisions- difficulties which are present in all decades- it soon becomes evident that their underlying problem is that they have no definite experience of their own desires or wants. Thus they feel swayed this way and that, with painful feelings of powerlessness, because they feel vacuous, empty. The complaint which leads them to come for help may be, for example, that their love relationships always break up or that they cannot go through with marriage plans or are dissatisfied with the marriage partner. But they do not talk long before they make it clear that they expect the marriage partner, real or hoped-for, to fill some lack, some vacancy within themselves; and they are anxious and angry because he or she doesn’t.

[…] Other readers may be raising another question: ” It may be true that people who come for psychological help feel empty and hollow, but aren’t those neurotic problems, and not necessarily true for the majority of people?” To be sure, we would answer, the persons who get to the consulting rooms of psychotherapists and psychoanalysts are not a cross-section of the population. By and large they are the ones for whom the conventional pretenses and defenses of the society no longer work. Very often they are the most sensitive and gifted members of the society; they need to get help, broadly speaking, because they are less successful at rationalizing than the “well-adjusted” citizen who is able for the time being to cover up his underlying conflicts.

[…] What is the psychological origin of this experience of emptiness? The feeling of emptiness or vacuity which we have observed sociologically and individually should not be taken to mean that people are empty, or without emotional potentiality. A human being is not empty in a static sense, as though he were a storage battery which needs charging. 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. Inner vacuousness is the long-term, accumulated result of a person’s particular conviction toward himself, namely his conviction that he cannot act as an entity in directing his own life, or change other people’s attitudes toward him, or effectually influence the world around him. Thus he gets the deep sense of despair and futility which so many people in our day have. And soon, since what he wants and what he feels can make no real difference, he gives up wanting and feeling. 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.

[…] It is not too much to say that modern man, sensing his own inner hollowness, is afraid that if he should not have his regular associates around him, should not have the talisman of his daily program and his routine of work, if he should forget what time it is, that he would feel, though in an inarticulate way, some threat like that which one experiences on the brink psychosis? When one’s customary ways of orienting oneself are threatened, and one is without other selves around one, one is thrown back on inner resources and inner strength, and this is what modern people have neglected to develop. Hence loneliness is a real,not imaginary, threat to many of them.

   Social acceptance, “being liked”, has so much power because it holds the feelings of loneliness at bay. A person is surrounded with comfortable warmth; he is merged in the group. He is reabsorbed- as though in the extreme psychoanalytic symbol, he were to go back into the womb. He temporarily loses his loneliness; but it is at the price of giving up his existence as an identity in his own right. And he renounces the one thing which would get him constructively over the loneliness in the long run, namely the developing if his own inner resources, strength and sense of direction, and using this as a basis for meaningful relations with others. The “stuffed men” are bound to become more lonely no matter how they ” lean together”; for hollow people do not have a base from which to learn to love.


¹May, Rollo. “Our Predicament.” Man’s Search for Himself. New York: Norton, 1953. pgs.3,4,6,11,18. Print.

Respond to Our collective emptiness

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