Love and Will

Love and Will (1969) by Rollo May

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Like so many self-help gurus, Rollo May didn’t have the easiest childhood. Born in Ohio in 1909, his parents divorced when he was young, and his sister developed schizophrenia. Some might say that he himself had something of a split personality, in that he found it difficult determine the course his life should take, whether teacher, psychologist of theologian. He gained qualifications entitling him to enter all three professions; gaining bachelor’s degrees in English and theology and then a PhD in clinical psychology. He later claimed that he’d studied theology purely ‘to ask questions, ultimate questions about human beings – not to be a preacher.’ His future eventually took shape when he was in his thirties and contracted tuberculosis, for which there was then no cure. As so often happens, this brush with death proved a turning point in his life. ‘All of a sudden the important projects, relationships, criteria, values by which I defined myself lost their worth. I learned quickly to tune in on my being, my existence in the now, because that was all there was.’

When his health rallied, he studied art in Poland and Greece, and then underwent training in psychoanalysis under Alfred Adler. Soon after, he wrote his first book, The Meaning of Anxiety, which was based on his doctoral thesis on the philosophy of Kierkegaard. Four more books followed in fairly rapid succession, all designed for professional psychologists. In 1956 a publisher phoned and asked if he would edit a book on European existential psychology. This added to his repertoire, because prior to the call he knew nothing whatsoever about existentialism. During these years he felt driven to write a book for the lay public, and so it was that after twenty-five years practice as a psychoanalyst he published Love and Will. The success of the book – which was based on his experience with a relatively small group of neurotic, middle class Americans – depended on its focus on the three of most important neuroses of the 1960s: anxiety, alienation and sexual dissatisfaction. The book was hyped by the media, because it claimed to offer individuals a gateway to self-identity, meaning, creativity and love. But it’s not an easy read, and Time magazine warned that it demanded the reader’s ‘emotional and intellectual commitment.’

As a psychotherapist, May was troubled by two things. First he found it paradoxical that in an age of mass communication people should feel so alienated, lonely and disconnected. And secondly he was worried by the contemporary commercialization of sex and the rise of pornography, which treated sex as a commodity which could be bought or sold. This conveyed the impression that sex and human affection were separate entities. The more available sex was, the more meaningless and banal it became. This mechanical approach was aggravated by the outpourings of the new breed of sex researchers, like Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, who focussed on climaxes, ‘G’ spots and clitoral stimulation. May wanted adults to rediscover the importance of affection, caring and mutual tenderness. This is reflected in the publisher’s claim that Love and Will was: ‘The first major book to demand the re-assertion of spiritual and emotional values in sex rather than techniques.’  May was aware that religious beliefs were not as strong as they were before, and conjectured  that when faced with this moral vacuum people would either look to themselves for the meaning of life, or conclude that life itself was pointless. Too many, he feared, would take the latter course.

The book didn’t make an immediate impact, but after five months the word-of-mouth recommendation of the chattering classes carried it into the best-seller list. I bought a copy as soon as it appeared, but didn’t refer to it once during the next forty years, until I gave it a second reading a few days ago. It now seems decidedly dated. Soon after the book appeared we saw the start of the ‘me’ generation, when the summum bonum was personal gratification. Today’s generation takes sex for granted. What they seem to crave is riches and fame. If these don’t come their way, they enjoy them vicariously; enjoying the antics and wild extravagancies of the A-List celebrities as depicted in the gossip columns and magazines like OK! and Hello. They watch soap operas and in time feel part of the communities they portray. The characters come into their living rooms, but they don’t make physical contact or even know they’re there. Despite the widespread availability of social websites, lonely hearts columns and speed dating, it still seems difficult to establish intimate friendships. No solutions are offered for these contemporary social problems in Love and Will. As a cure, the book therefore seems little better than offering a vaccine for H1N1 swine flu when society is facing an epidemic of SARS.

But it has a delightful final chapter, full of hope and promise. May, the perennial optimist, was convinced that we were about to enter a New Age ‘when the emphasis will not be on making piles and piles of money and being scared to death the stock market is going to drop tomorrow, but rather the emphasis will be on truth, on joy, on understanding.’  It will be to our universal benefit if we can cultivate those qualities of compassion, affection and selfless caring for which he strove.

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