Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why The USA Abhors Existentialism

     If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.  -- Rollo May

     The World Congress for Existential Therapy is hosting a conference in London with dozens of existential therapists I would gladly have lunch with. If you are interested in learning more about this, click here. The flight, hotel, and entrance cost are prohibitive to me attending, but I hope one day to present there and have them foot the bill!
     In the meantime, something struck me as odd: Why are there so few existential therapists in the States? When I tell people I am an existential marriage and family therapist, they either stare at me blankly or ask what an existentialist is. They get bonus points if they pronounce "existential" correctly. I do not mean to disparage the intelligence of my fellow Americans. After I explain existentialism to them, they seem to understand. What frustrates me is how the term existentialism has been extricated from our vocabulary. The following is my theory why existentialism has such difficulty putting down roots in America*.

     This is just a theory, but here it goes: In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, landed in America, and insisted the people living there were Indians, even after they told him otherwise, a path of dominance and brutality was begun. Nearly 400 years later, a zeitgeist of American desire to expand geographically, economically, and ideologically across as much of North America as possible occurred. This "God Blessed" right and desire was identified by John O'Sullivan as Manifest Destiny.

     Manifest Destiny is not compatible with existentialism. At its core, existentialism is relational and requires reciprocity and egalitarianism. At its core, Manifest Destiny subjugates and requires control and dominance. Manifest Destiny is a reason while existentialism requires reasoning.

     There is a vast difference between reasons and reasoning. Reasons are why we do what we do or believe what we believe. Reasoning is the process by which we arrive at our reasons.

     If we garner someones reasons as our own, without going through our own reasoning process, our motivation will be fallow and hollow and shallow. However, if we reason out why we're doing what we're doing or believing what we're believing, then our reasons can easily be adapted when our reasoning is shown to be wrong. It is not an issue of dogma when we discuss our reasoning, it is an issue of dogma when we discuss our reasons. This may seem like splitting hairs, and in truth it may be. However, these hairs start wars. People kill and die over reasons. People can discuss reasoning. Creeds are reasons, prayer is reasoning. Reasons are static, reasoning is dynamic.

     It's the difference between dialectical discussions and debates. Dialectical discussions are designed to allow two or more people to arrive at a general conclusion of truth. Debates are designed and constructed to prove one opinion correct and an opposing or different opinion wrong through the weight of arguments. Dialectical discussions bring two people closer together while debates encourage separation and exist as a zero sum game.

     And this is where the rubber meets the road: Life does not offer answers. Truth, understanding, knowledge, acceptance, all must be sought out via difficult means of self-discovery. Many Christians struggle with the idea of existentialism because they believe it is postmodern relativism and that it allows room for people to get away with anything; that it makes everything justifiable. Here's the truth: Thinking in terms of black and white, reasons without reasoning, creates a festering fear that is threatened by anything different or new. It is the type of thinking that lead to the Spanish Inquisition, the Holy Wars, and the conversion by force applied to "savages". There is no reasoning behind a suicide bomb, only reasons.

     Reasoning, like love, is a process; not a goal. This is where fear often emerges. If we trust the process, we must be willing to consider its results no matter how different they are from our own beliefs. The Disciples failed to trust the process while Christ was being crucified. I believe the argument could be made that extremist groups do not trust the process of their own beliefs and instead take the power and control into their own hands.

     My religion tells me to love my enemy, my neighbor, and myself, equally. My Christian community has failed to show me even how to love myself. This is because, too often, the Church has been more obsessed with being RIGHT, with its own Manifest Destiny, with its self, than it has been with the process it claims to promote and defend. Can we trust the process of love, of existentialism, of dialectical reasoning, or do we lack that bravery? Until we we can be brave enough to do so, Americans will continue to abhor existentialism because it threatens our right to be right at all costs. Existentialism calls us to be in relation. Can this be done when my needs exist to the exclusion of others? As long as being RIGHT in all of its forms (driving the right car, owning the right house, or having "the best") remains more important than being in relationship with others, existentialism will continue to be perceived as a threat and generate anger and aggression.

     What's the answer? Individuals choosing genuine relationship over, but not to the exclusion of, self. I do not expect America to change. I do expect you to change. The only question now is, are you brave enough?

World War No.
(C) 2014, Nathan D. Croy

*Just to be clear, I realize I'm being ethnocentric, or egocentric, or some type of "centric" when I say "America" instead of The United States of America. I know the term "America" could mean North or South America. It's just easier to type, so leave me alone.