Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Courage To Be by Paul Tillich

I first started reading this book because I want answers to the existential angst that plagues me and others that are aware of the implications of post-modern ideas. I don’t mean to say that I wanted an alternative to post-modernism; I don’t believe that is any more realistic than saying that I want an alternative to turning 32, for that’s just wishful thinking. I’m not a post-modernist, for I am not merely a product of my culture, but I am influenced by my culture. If I’m being honest with myself, there is simply no escaping thinking in part like a post-modernist, for I am steeped in a post-modern era of thought and practice. It doesn’t help to revert to modernist ‘fact-finding’ when immersed in a society that is exploring the cognitive foundation of what we call objective reality—but people attempt this regressive tactic nonetheless because it’s a familiar place. But the past is dead and done; it is worn into a deep rut, and a new path must be found. We must confess, though disheartened, that facts don’t find nearly as much as they don’t find. Enter post-modernism.

Tillich starts by differentiating between fear and anxiety. Fear is a manifestation of universal, existential anxiety; and as a leaf and not a root, fear can be more directly dealt with than anxiety. The individual fears are embodiments that can be avoided, resisted, opposed and even eliminated—while the root of fear—anxiety—is really the ever-present awareness of non-being that constantly hovers. This anxiety cannot be removed, and is a necessary part of self-preservation (“self-affirmation”) which adds to one’s valuation of life. This principle of ineradicable anxiety is one of most difficult parts of this book to make peace with (didn’t I start reading to do exactly that…decrease anxiety?). But Tillich reveals that just as torture can be accepted at the hand of a trusted physician, so existential anxiety can be courageously endured because of a deeper realization that affirms one’s sense of purpose and identity. This truth is revealed in the last quarter of the book.

There are three basic forms of anxiety: anxiety about death (“non-being”—which ultimately subsumes the other two), anxiety about meaninglessness (an empty life), and condemnation (guilt about a wrong life). One can deal practically with fears, but anxiety (no matter which sort) must ultimately be accepted into one’s ultimate sense of self-worth and one’s right to BE (again, “self-affirmation). This is what the author refers to as ‘taking it [fears, doubts, anxiety] into oneself’. In spite of anxiety, one can still do what must be done, and can remain confident that God is still holding them. This is the confidence of Being—COURAGE—that gives one the strength to stare down non-being in its many forms.

This courage, however, does not always come easy, nor or is always immediately apparent when it does arrive. Courage can be partly obstructed by one’s lack of realization that confidence in one’s own being can take place only as an ancillary to the deeper confidence in what Tillich calls “being-itself”, viz. God. Pre-mature courage often evidences itself as ‘courage to be as a part’ [collectivism], or ‘courage to be as oneself’ [individualistic existentialism]; the former missing out on a belief in self, the later missing out on a belief in the world.

I can certainly say that I comprehend our existential predicament a bit more clearly after reading this book. Never have I read a work that so faithfully scrutinized our ontology as if it were under a microscope, but did not abandon the soul under the microscope to wriggle and die. In the words of the psychologist Carl Jung, our author has stood and stared into face of the monster of the maternal abyss, and has not been mesmerized by its power, but has overcome. This understanding of the source of our anxiety and fear can help bring a renewed determination to renew the fight, and to be hopeful and courageous even when all hope seems lost. It brings new meaning to the idea that while one is alive, there is still confidence to believe that one is ‘meant’ to be alive. In the words of Robert Browning, “This world’s no blot for us nor blank; it means intensely, and means good. And to find its meaning is my meat and drink.”

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