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Stages as Described by Rollo May

Throughout the Creative Arts Text – Global Citizen the book called The Courage to Create is often mentioned

Our last post asked the question : Who Is Rollo May?

 Now we investigate his theory: 

As a best known American existential psychologist, May sought to be open-minded in his quest to understand what attributes allowed and encouraged people to be creative.

On this open-minded quest, the author attempted to transcend differences in world view and develop a more all encompassing approach to research in an attempt to craft a broader more welcoming and empowering theory.
His work attempts to reconcile existential psychology with other approaches, especially Freud’s.

May uses some traditional existential terms slightly differently than other writers, and invents new words for some of existentialism’s old ideas rather than be confined by old ideation and restrictions.

May’s Understanding of the Idea of Destiny.

When May examines notions of destiny, he is thinking of the idea of thrownness and / or fallenness.

These are strange words to describe those aspects of our lives that are determined for us. These are the raw materials such as family, physical attributes and other historical aspects that establish the initial project from which we fashion our lives.

In the book Cry for Myth, May insightfully critiques the book The Great Gatsby.    Throughout the popular narrative Gatsby’s life is at once, a struggle against his given ”destined” existence and a will to surpass it. Gatsby is encouraged but also duped by his empowered vision. He possessed the  courage to create his life, but it was not anchored in reality.  The movie ends in tragedy.   The message of the book is that there is a reality within which each actor must play out his or her existence.  It is only when the protagonist realises the true possibility and potential of authentic existence and deals with this reality creatively, that he or she can transcend his or her ‘thrown’ condition.

May has a tendency to express his concepts through the word courage.  He uses the word courage more often than the traditional term “authenticity”.   Being authentic relies on a capacity to face anxiety without being crippled by it.  In so doing, May believes that each person can rise above the condition of anxiety and depression.

When May describes stages, we can interpret them in the light of the human capacity to endure creative tension.  It is in the book, The Courage to Create that May most overtly formulates his theories about authenticity and courage.

Understanding May’s Stages of Creative Development

The word ‘stage’ when used in the context of May’s psychology/philosophy is not meant to be thought of as bench marks or stages that are lived through and then superseded. The stages are better thought of as psychic spaces or places that coexist on a spiral of knowing, experiencing and being. So, for example, it is quite common for people in modern society to exhibit one face to the world as they travel through their anxious competitive day and another to their family on arrival home.  This implies that people may act out characteristics when experiencing a stage in one setting and differently when experiencing a different set of parameters in another.

Below are four divisions called stages as described by May throughout the literature.

Innocence: A Natural Normal Stage of Peace and Contentment

The analogy here is to the pre-egoic, pre-self-conscious stage of the infant. The innocent is premoral, i.e., is neither bad nor good.  Like a wild animal who kills to eat, the innocent is only doing what he or she must do.  But an innocent does have a degree of will in the sense of a drive to fulfil their needs!  (Boeree 1998)  Although we think of children when discussing this phase, it is also possible to think of the aged and other people who are not caught up in life’s inescapable dramas.

Rebellion: The Stuff Dramatic Novels are Made Of!

Although we think of childhood and adolescent stages when the kids are ‘giving trouble’, this way of thinking about how people act in the world can also apply to people in Mid Life Crisis.  The staged called rebellion most aptly applies to any life stage when a person is developing ego awareness or self-consciousness.  With the young this development is highlighted and escalated by means of contrast with adults.  Boeree suggests readers think of “the “no” of the two year old to the “no way” of the teenager”.

The rebellious person wants freedom, but has as yet no full understanding of the responsibility that goes with it.  Boeree illustrates the concept by lampooning the teenager who may want to “spend their allowance in any way they choose — yet they still expect the parent to provide the money, and will complain about unfairness if they don’t get it!”  However for the purposes of understanding the power of this stage let us instead look at the stories of Gauguin, Whitely and Warhol. In so doing we ask, “Does being an artist mean dropping responsibility?”  When we seek out and recognise the rebellious stage throughout the history of the Modern Art World, our understanding of Rebellion (and what it is) is coloured by the word ENNUI.

Ordinary: The Word Says It All

Most of life is not scintillating.  For the cogs of the modern capitalist world to turn, the normal adult ego, must subordinate itself to the conventions of a work day and conventional existence.  This can be quite boring, perhaps.

To be creative requires the courage to stray from conventionality.   By mature adulthood, most people who function adequately have learned responsibility, but find it too demanding. To escape insecurity many seek refuge in conformity and traditional values.  There is nothing wrong with this state of affairs.  Sometimes t is not until retirement that people regain a desire to look towards a more creative and free lifestyle.

Creativity:  True Creativity Is a Product of Steady Development. 

Leonardo Da Vinci is probably the archetype of the truly creative individual.   For the authentic adult, the existential stage is a space beyond ego and self-actualizing.  This is the person who, accepting destiny, faces anxiety with courage!  It is the contention of the Creative Arts Text Global Citizens Art that students will gain much if these stages are explained to them.

These should not be explained as stages in the traditional sense.  They are more appropriately thought of as “times”.

An adult may be rebellious and creative at certain times.  Think of the prisoner who although rebellious becomes engaged in Art as a way of enduring a prison sentence.

The attachment to certain ages is better thought of in terms of salience.  Rebelliousness stands out in the two year old and the teenager and yet if life’s circumstances change as in the case of sickness, accident, prison sentence or refugee displacement the rebellious stage may not only return but also be a necessary precondition of recovery.

Students can become aware of the stages when they

i.   have creative role models in the form of teachers, other guides and coaches

ii.  read and watch movies about positive roles models (such da Vinci) and negative role models and then contrast the lifestyle to less responsibly valanced artistic styles, such as Gauguin, Brett Whitely, Warhol and the like.

iii.  are shown what the stages are and are asked to locate themselves

iv.  develop not only a sense of responsibility but an understanding of life’s structures through the work of Bourdieu

v.  experience a stimulating and well planned creative environment