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Existential Psychotherapy

David Cowles

Jun 13, 2023

“We cannot make our problems go away by wishing. We have to make them go away!”

In previous articles, we have explored the roots and branches of today’s mental health crisis, a pandemic that seems impervious both to traditional ‘talk therapy’ and to our trendiest pharmaceuticals. Diagnosis complete, it is time to work on a treatment plan.

Serendipitously, such a therapeutic regime already exists, hidden away on dusty shelves in the back room of your university library. Sartre called it Existential Psychoanalysis, Carl Rogers called it Client Centered Therapy, Rollo May, Eric Fromm, and Victor Frankl referred to it as our Search for Meaning.

We previously identified three root causes of today’s malaise: the loss of Identity, the lack of Belonging (Isolation), and the loss of Potency (Impotence). But we resisted the temptation to plug up the leaky dike with facile pseudo-solutions. Instead, we bravely noted that, in fact, we have no Identity, we do not Belong, and we are not Potent!

Dangerous thinking! But we cannot begin the climb to Paradise until we’ve stared into the proud eyes of Satan as he languishes on the lowest rung of Dante’s Inferno. We cannot make our problems go away by wishing. We have to make them go away

We cannot expect the world to hand us a ready-made identity as if it were a passport. We cannot expect the cool kids to invite us to sit at their table. We cannot rely on Marvel’s superheroes to fight our battles for us. If only life were that easy!

Sadly, contemporary culture encourages us to place our faith in such externals. Our jobs, our friends, our support systems are just so much cotton batten intended to insulate us from the blows of life. Tragically, this strategy does not work!

It doesn’t work for two reasons: one historical, the other existential. History first! We live in a time of unprecedented social mobility. Children no longer aspire to their parents’ careers; 40 years and a gold watch just don’t cut it any more. And I so wanted that watch!

Friendships are hard won and fleeting in an age of lockdowns and social media; support systems erode in the face of social unrest, political instability, and the explosion of new technologies. It’s a shame we don’t believe in God anymore because the Judeo-Christian tradition fed us amply from all three food groups: 

  • Who am I? I am a child of God, created to know, love, and serve him in this world and in the world to come. 

  • Where do I belong? Among the community of the faithful now (Church) and in the Kingdom of Heaven later. 

  • How do I make a difference? By discerning and obeying the will of God, by partnering with him in the creation and redemption of the world, by building the City of God (Augustine), the City of Dioce (Pound).

Ok, cool, now I can get on with my life…except I can’t. Most people today won’t accept these three easy answers to life’s dilemmas. If we can’t look to society for the answers and if the traditional answers are inconsistent with our current metaphysical disposition, where can we turn?

Radical idea: how about turning to yourself? You have no identity. Ok, try telling that to a serf in Tsarist Russia. You have the freedom to fashion your own identity. Freedom is your identity! You can be whoever and whatever you want to be (subject to certain objective limitations). Don’t let fear of the unknown paralyze you. You are free to be all that you can be, whatever that might be. “Don’t dream it, be it!” (Rocky Horror Picture Show)

If Tsarist Russia doesn’t resonate with you, try the Ante-Bellum South. Much blood was shed so that all men and women in the US could be free, free to be whatever they want to be. Don’t flee from that freedom; don’t indenture yourself to anxiety and/or drugs!

You don’t belong? So what! Why should you? Invite others to join you. Start your own cool kids’ table. Live a life that others will want to emulate. Jesus did. St. Francis did. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, all did…why not you? Lead the way, fellowship will follow. You have the power; you are in control!

You act, but nothing changes; you speak, but no one is listening. You are impotent! Ok, forget about global hunger, peace, and climate change. Impact something closer to home. Launch a fund raiser, folks will contribute. Paint your house, neighbors will get the idea, etc. Do one thing; others will follow!

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Looked at from this perspective: the three I’s (Identity, Isolation, and Impotence) turn out to be just one ‘I’ and that one ‘I’ turns out to be ‘U’! ATM’s Summer Issue (6/1) included an article on Paul’s Letter to Ephesians (2:10). Let’s quote it here: “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance that we should live in them.” (2:10)

God or no God, Jean-Paul Sartre, who much preferred ‘no God,’ tells us that the world is nothing but a system of obstacles and tools, levies and levers. That said, it stands to reason that there would be many identities we could assume, many groups we could form or join, and many missions we could undertake with respect to that system

We are not called upon to fix the world immediately or by ourselves. Let’s fix just one thing. The options are many and the choice is ours! And that should be a source of joy, not anxiety.    


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