Becoming Solid

"I'm just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me." Rollo May begins his book, Man's Search for Himself, with the above quote from one of his patients. His writing style is a bit circuitous, and trying to summarize his ideas is like trying to find sharp contours in a blurry photograph, but I'm going to try anyway. The problem he is addressing has the following manifestations:

  • Feeling like your life is empty, futile, and meaningless.
  • Feeling like you are a pawn in the hands of external forces, and have no power to direct your own life.
  • Thinking that the world is going to hell and you are too small and insignificant to influence anything.
  • Feeling lonely, afraid of being alone, and terrified of being a social failure. Feeling a compulsive need to be liked and approved of.
  • Feeling a vague but constant anxiety, and being unable to pinpoint its source.
  • Thinking that your goals and circumstances could change at any moment, and that there is too much uncertainty about the future, so there is no point starting any long-term projects.

May's proposed solution is to develop a stronger sense of self, and to dare to stand on your own two feet. Having a strong sense of self means being aware of what you feel and what you want. The opposite of this is pretending that you never feel envy or anger, and only wanting things that you're willing to admit in polite company. Standing on your own two feet means making choices that you believe are right and worthwhile, and taking full responsibility for those choices, even when they might annoy certain people. The opposite of this is picking an audience (parents, teachers, friends, or the anonymous crowd), and making choices based on how that audience would react.

Both prongs of this solution require a fair bit of courage: the courage to look inside yourself and risk seeing things you'd rather not see, and then the courage to go against what is expected of you and towards what you really want, risking embarrassment and disapproval. It is much easier to abdicate responsibility, to live your life in perpetual reaction to external demands, to keep yourself constantly busy and avoid self-awareness... To dream about a better tomorrow, forgetting that life is just today over and over and over again, and that if you can't be happy with today, then tomorrow won't be any better.

When thinking about a person with a weak sense of self, the image I have in my head is that of a baby fish. She is taken wherever the currents take her, and has no will of her own. She has cartilage for bones. She's even slightly transparent, trying so hard to blend in that she takes on the hues of whatever is around her. As she gets older, the fish becomes more solid. Her bones establish a clear boundary between her self and what's outside. She is now strong enough to swim against the current. And she is no longer swayed by the colors of those around her. This is what it means to be a confident adult, to have a will of your own, to stand on your own two feet and be the master of your fate.

After outlining the problem and sketching the solution, May stops short of giving practical advice on becoming solid. I would have liked to see examples of people developing their self-awareness, courage, and integrity, and growing up from powerless to self-assured. Heck, even figuring out what you want is not an easy question, when you've spent all your life doing what other people expected of you. That question requires more thinking, and could be the subject of another post.