Insights from the Helping Professions


Rollo May, 1985

For nearly half a century, Rollo May has been a perceptive commentator on aspects of the human condition. From the perspective of psychotherapists, humanistic psychologists, and noted scholars, his insightful books have addressed such topics as Love and Will, Freedom and Destiny, Power and Innocence, and The Discovery of Being. In the discussion I had with him today he turned his attention to the problem of achieving peace.

May: War and peace always go together, and our great problem these days is we talk peace and we fight wars. There are three wars going on all at once that we are involved in, in Central America, in the Near East, and to some extent we send arms to Afghanistan. And what's amazing is that war seems about to break out all over the world.

Whiteley: Well, as a therapist who spent his professional life thinking about problems of the human condition, how would you begin to go about trying to understand why that's been a recurrent phenomena of the 20th Century?

May: Well, I understand it as being, if I may use the term, the psychosis of everybody. You see, when war begins to be talked about - we hate our enemy, we develop all sorts of hatreds; he's the sinner, we are the good people. I think what Reagan talks about the Russians is terrible. That the Russians are the empire of evil, they do not believe in the afterlife, and they are the people of Satan, we are the people of God. Now what happens then, as we project all of our paranoia on them...

Whiteley: But their rhetoric, except for the God issue, is very similar to ours toward them.

May: Yes. This is the very strange thing (abnormal thing) about it all. When we fight a war - I was a boy during...a very small child during the First World War, and I learned the Germans were not people; they were all devils. They cut women's breasts off and everything else. And I grew up, when I first met a German, I was terrifically surprised. Here was a nice cultivated intelligent person. Now five years after a war, say like ours with the Japanese, we are buddies again with the same people. They've shed all of their hating and their disagreeable aspects, and now we are related to them all over again.

Whiteley: Now, is this innate in human nature or is it a consequence of some training and upbringing?

May: This is an illustration of a common - what I would like to call, a common paranoia. Now what that comes from is the basic need in human beings to affirm their own being. In other words, to protect themselves, to stand for their own values. But when they do that, then what's important is that they not do it at the cost of destroying others' values and others' religions and others' peace of mind. Now we have not yet learned to do that.

Whiteley: Okay, but you're saying that there's something innate in the human condition to affirm oneself, and that the problem in affirming oneself, it has been historically, at least at the expense of others. Now why does that happen?

May: Yes. Well, it happens by virtue of the double nature of the human being. As Euripedes said, I believe that there are biological needs in affirming yourself. You always partially misunderstand the other person. As I affirm myself now, I cannot go inside your skin and know exactly what you're thinking. I can know it partly but never wholly. And this means that evil is a problem for all of us. But no matter what nice techniques there are for being transformed, overcoming evil, and being serene the rest of your life, none of those are reality with human beings. Because sooner or later there comes out this assertion, and assertion in our day takes the place of violence. Now what this means is there are no easy answers to the problem of war and peace. Whenever I hear these simple things, you should do this and then we're okay and so on, all we need to do is to destroy the Russians - these are terrible thoughts. Now what that leads us to is that the sense of compassion needs to be developed, the sense that the other person is really us in a different...who was it, Pogo who said, 'I met the enemy and he is us', which is very true. The enemy is remarkably like us and says the same things about us that we say about them.

Whiteley: Now, if war is evil, you're one of the few humanistic psychologists who have written and thought very carefully about the problem of evil. You seem to be saying that within us is some capacity for compassion on the one hand, and on the other hand for generating and engaging in evil. What are you trying to communicate with that?

May: Well, what I'm trying to communicate requires my next point. And my next point is that this present struggle in the 20th Century, when we have killed more men than we did in the whole of history beforehand, this 20th Century which was heralded back in the early 1900s as a century of peace and rationality. This 20th Century marks the disintegration of a period in human life, and like the neurotic, before he goes for therapy his neurosis gets worse and he fights the harder to hang onto the neurosis, and then finally he collapses and has to get treatment. Now our world is in that kind of situation. This is why terrorism breaks out all over the world, and it's why a war springs up here, another war there. Now what we have to get through is this terrible, this damaging situation of managing these rapids, without getting into a nuclear war. And then I think there is dawning; as a matter of fact I'm very convinced of this. There is now dawning a new myth that deals with nations, and this I want to call 'the myth of planetism,' of the struggle that we're going through is to hold off the need to recognize Russia and China and every other place as significant for us, almost as our own country. What happens in Washington also happens in Moscow and in Peking.

Now this is now required by the fact that the astronauts in our 20th Century development have now viewed the world as a totality. We no longer can go back. In this totality, in the photographs we got from the astronauts, these photographs show the world now as a unity, not spiritually, but physically. Now what is necessary is that we take seriously this unity of nations. We no longer can play with it. You see what Reagan and the present government is trying to do is to run the 20th Century on the myths of the 19th and 18th Century, where authoritarian power and man would always do the trick. Now we should have learned in Vietnam that this is just not true.

Whiteley: Okay, but at the individual level, you're indicating that people will continue to bring out the evil side of them and engage in these kinds of activities if there's not a greater enhancement of that capacity for compassion. Why aren't we doing that as a society?

May: Well, I believe very much in love, but I believe that to talk about love in our culture is to jump over the real possibilities. Now what compassion is is something short of love, but it's a possible, it's workable. I would understand that you also have your own egocentric tendencies the same way I do. You also have your tendencies toward assertion at the cost of other people, which is what leads ultimately to war, but I can have compassion for you. I can realize that your sense of nonbeing, you're as much afraid of that as I'm afraid of being smashed or killed or whatever. Now compassion is a workable goal, and it's a possible goal. It's what we can feel with the Russians now that they have seen our film on The Day After, and they say, "Yes, we're afraid of the same thing." Now, out of this mutual fear, out of our understanding that they also are human as we are.

Whiteley: Okay, but how would you go about growing, as it were, more peacemakers, more people with a capacity for compassion who are able to have assertion without evil, to take the words that you're using to describe your ideas.

May: There always will be some element of evil in anybody's assertion. There's no way of avoiding that.

Whiteley: Granted that, but you can design the culture, as it were, to provide experiences for young people where they are rewarded, encouraged, presented with more peaceful alternatives for resolving disputes, and our society doesn't do that.

May: And our society should do that.

Whiteley: And why don't we? If we can understand why we're not doing it, perhaps that would be a beginning step to being able to do more of it.

May: Well, I can only then emphasize what I've already implied, that certainly our schools, our families, need to understand and to teach to the young the possibilities of compassion. Now, teaching of love, as I say, goes beyond the realistic absorption of people. But it becomes, as Reinhold Niebuhr used to say, a possible impossibility. But compassion, which now brings us in touch with the Buddhists, with the Confucianists, with the Hindus, with all the rest of the Eastern world, this compassion already is a way of our seeing the world as a totality.

Whiteley: And that's your myth of the one world as seen by the astronauts. But if we take some of the major forces or structures in our society, I wonder if you'd discuss them one at a time. I'm talking about religion, government, and capital. Are they operating, or can they operate, toward this achieving a myth of the planet? Let's start with religion.

May: Yes, you see, religion is in a stage of disintegration here in the West, at least, the same as our psychology is, as other - that's the reason you have so many therapists.

Whiteley: How is religion disintegrating?

May: There are fewer people going to the churches, except Fundamentalists.

Whiteley: Okay, and what are the consequences of that?

May: Well, the consequences of it are that religion is less and less taken as a laudable pursuit. When you're running a company you leave religion out of it, and that should not be. The Japanese, who bring in their spiritual attitudes toward empathy, toward understanding, have such powerful companies partly because they don't set capitalism over against religion.

Whiteley: You're saying religion not only is not gathering the people in, but to the extent that it does gather people in, it's in a separate way from what you see is a better way to design the culture.

May: Our culture has made it that way. Our culture has ordained that we go to church on Sundays. Mondays, we forget all about it and go about our business. And the same way with art, and the same way with other things. But now, let's try to understand how compassion and the myth - and I use myth in a positive sense, not at all as falsehood - but myth is the spiritual framework by which we hold ourselves together.

Whiteley: It's a way to understand a set of meanings that we have as an individual or as a culture, or shared values amongst us. It's a myth.

May: And myths are inevitable. They're unavoidable. Those who want to deny all myths are almost always those that are blaming other people for having myths like they themselves unconsciously also have.

Whiteley: Can religion have a more positive role in achieving peace than you seem to think it has today?

May: Well, I think that it has a smaller role in achieving peace today, but the efforts of the Pope to talk for peace, to work for peace in Central America, I found very valuable. And all of the real religions like the Quakers, the Congregationalists, the Protestant religions in this country, do work for peace, except the Fundamentalists. Now I have to leave them out because they are mostly concerned with their own souls and they're quite willing to blame everybody else for their own mistakes. Now...

Whiteley: So your critique there is that they're not engaged enough in solving problems of this world.

May: There were many Fundamentalists down South that were in favor of the Vietnam War, which was the worst tragedy that we ever got into. Now the other religions I think are playing a very valuable role in the bringing of peace and the struggle against war, but the problem is that they are not powerful enough by themselves. Martin Luther King was a religious man, and all of our martyrs and heroes have had a strong religious sense.

Whiteley: And with the Pope or with Martin Luther King you're singling out their willingness to speak out about critical issues.

May: Willingness to speak out - Gandhi...

Whiteley: So if you were advising a group of religious leaders on what they could do to enhance the mission for peace, you would encourage them to speak out.

May: I would very much encourage them to speak out, but also, what I was going to say was that our religion in the West is now becoming amalgamated with Buddhism, with religions of the Orient, and I think this is a very positive thing, now when we have gotten through this period of neurosis, this nervous breakdown, a psychosis in our culture, where nations fight nations without even their own good clearly in mind.

Whiteley: Well, let's get there - slip over into what role government could play in achieving a more peaceful world. You've thought about the need on the one hand to develop more compassion, more of a one-world view that we're all in it together at some point, and that the problem with religion at least is it tends to foster some separateness amongst people, and the leaders have not chosen to speak out. What would you say to government leaders from an insight of a half a century of listening to people talk about their innermost fears and hopes, which is one of the reasons you've become so interested in achieving peace?

May: Well, government, I could say very simply that the way not to do it is the way our present government has followed. Government generally follows rather than leads. This is a sad point, but politically speaking, it follows. And the problem is...

May: Yes. It has to be pushed by people, by religious leaders, by socially-minded humanitarians. It has to be pushed. Now the great tragedy is that we slid into the Vietnam War, and now we are thinking that our salvation lies in building more and more armaments, and that exactly makes it impossible that we then can talk with other nations.

Whiteley: Okay, so your advice to government leaders is...

May: Not to build so many warheads; there are plenty already to destroy the world a dozen times over. It also is - I would speak of compassion very strongly with religious leaders. I think we should elect as a President only those people that can temperamentally have compassion for other nations.

Whiteley: Okay. What advice would you give educators? We, several generations from now there will be a whole different set of leaders of our society, as parents, as voters, as the managers of religion and government and business. Education is a hope; it's an opportunity to start with the next generation and provide a different set of experiences. What advice would you give educators to help in achieving peace?

May: Well, this is a very important problem, as you know. The functions of our schools ought to be to take in the total world, which is my structure of planetism, to realize that people - children in Russia are very much the same as children in this country.

Whiteley: In the sense that they have the potential for evil in them, as do we; but they have the potential for developing compassion and a broader perspective on the nature of the human condition than currently is occurring either there or here.

May: Yes, that's right. Well, I would put in every curriculum that I had anything to do with it, a course on peace. And I would also put in every curriculum that I had to do with, a course on compassion. Now, this talk about prayers in the schools and so on, all that misses the point, because the prayers generally are for me - help me to be rich, rather than compassion for my neighbor who may need it a lot worse than I do. So long as the people, a large number of people in this country are hungry, we're not going to have either good education, or when people go to school without any lunch, and endure without lunch, and then come back again. I taught in Greece for three years refugee children from Asia Minor. Some of those didn't have enough money to come even with a biscuit for lunch. Now, we could not teach them; we had to feed them. Then we could teach them. Now...

Whiteley: So the problem with an institution like education is that ultimately it needs to deal with the problems of people in a practical way that are coming to them. But that gets us to the last unit to intervene in, and that's the family. What advice would you give the parents on, how they can begin at a practical level of building peace in the world?

May: Well, this is again very interesting. I spend my days listening to people's problems, and families, and individuals particularly. Now, the break-up of the family, which is another symptom of the fact that our whole 20th Century is in turmoil, the break-up of the families, from one point-of-view, a sad thing so far as peace goes. Because what we generate often in these break-ups are underlying resentment, anger toward father or mother, and this anger and resentment can later come out in anger toward the Nicaraguans or whatever else.

Whiteley: It seems to strengthen that evil part of human nature you've worried about. Well, what would you advise parents about the environment and the experiences they provide their children?

May: I think the present things ought to be increased; that is the sending of young people, high school, college, to other countries to learn their language.

Whiteley: To try to foster some broader world view. But what about when they're younger, as children form so much of their personality and character structure in the first years of life through adolescence. Let's take one period at a time. What would you do with young children? What kinds of experiences would you...

May: I would not get terribly worried when they put up blocks and somebody knocked them down. There is this aggression, if you want to call it that, a normal aggression that we cannot leave behind.

Whiteley: Which is part of the human condition.

May: Which is part of the human condition, yes. But I would at the same time, if there were a fight between children, I would take the fight seriously. I wouldn't try to tell them that's naughty. But then I would get them together and I would give them a chance to talk with each other, or they can be the best of friends the next day. See, that's the curious thing which is happening with nations too.

Whiteley: But the issue is to get them talking and helping them learn more peaceful ways to resolve their differences.

May: I think it's very good to get children in on the protest against the making of nuclear arms. I know some families whose children come - are most active in that sense. Now this is what makes me hope for a better world in 20 or 30 or 40 years. It will not have the fear of nuclear war hanging always over its head.

Whiteley: Dr. May, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into how to achieve a more peaceful world.