Existential Psychologist Rollo May on Freedom and the Significance of the Pause


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“Freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one.”


Existential Psychologist Rollo May on Freedom and the Significance of the Pause

“Everything can be taken from a man,” the great Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” A generation later, James Baldwin examined how we imprison ourselves and asserted: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.”

These are discomfiting sentiments, for they annihilate the protective possibility for self-victimization and place the responsibility for freedom squarely on our own shoulders — a responsibility whose first demand is that we learn to want to be free.

How to do that is what the existential psychologist Rollo May (April 21, 1909–October 22, 1994) explores in his 1981 book Freedom and Destiny (public library) — the source of his insight into the constructive side of despair and the psychology of joy.

Rollo May

In his definition of freedom, May outlines the single most important internal discipline by which we attain self-liberation:

Freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one.

Decades later, the English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips would complement this notion with his kindred case for the paradoxical value of our unlived lives, suggesting that contentment — which is a supreme species of freedom — lies largely in the acceptance of missing out, of tuning out most of the stimuli with which life bombards us. May considers this existential aspect of the pause beyond its practical utility in the immediacy of the moment:

The pause is especially important for the freedom of being, what I have called essential freedom. For it is in the pause that we experience the context out of which freedom comes. In the pause we wonder, reflect, sense awe, and conceive of eternity. The pause is when we open ourselves for the moment to the concepts of both freedom and destiny.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince

Complement Freedom and Destiny with Simone de Beauvoir on what freedom really means and the great Buddhist teacher D.T. Suzuki on the Zen path to freedom, then revisit May on how to move through times of radical transition.


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