Shortly after becoming an existential therapist, Bob Edelstein remembers having a conversation with Rollo May.
“I asked if one could be both existential and spiritual. He responded that it was essential to be both.”
Edelstein recounts that story in his recent review of Kirk Schneider’s book Awakening to Awe, and it represents one of the most significant aesthetic differences between the traditional view of “philosophical” existentialism we all know, and the more psychologically based New Existentialism: traditional existentialism is frequently seen as harsh and depressing. The New Existentialism explicitly embraces our capacity for joy.
This is not joy in spite of the existential truths we need to confront, but because of them. The New Existentialism is no less concerned with the truths of the human condition: our freedom, the inevitability of death, the need to make meaning in life. But, as Schneider’s work points out: awe is at the center of any honest description of the human experience. We live in a world that constantly surprises us, constantly engages us on new levels, and is always beyond our capacity to fully measure and account for.
That recognition – the recognition of the nature of life as we live it – is the beginning of a spiritual awakening. It may be an agnostic one, founded as it is in the human capacity to experience the world and not in any particular dogma, but the point is clear: Rollo May was right. A life without awe, without spirituality, is lobotomized. A credible psychology needs to take that into account.