NPJ Book Review: The Meaning of Anxiety by Rollo May

The Meaning of Anxiety by Rollo May Revised (1996)

Human existence is filled with anxiety.

My take: Not as dense as his work titled Existence, the author, Rollo May, an existential psychologist, deals in part with the dichotomy between the mind and body – separate and whole. One must be careful in assessing the parts to gain a perspective of the whole but also looking at the whole person from a distance.

I found this a thoughtful philosophical / psychological work focusing on the primary interest of the Rollo May’s research, that is, the nature of existentialism. The plight and anxiety of humans in body and mind revealed in confronting the meaning of existence. Anxiety is a natural element of modern humans, especially in the age in which so many feel as mere survivors. Though written in the 70’s with some revisions along the way, the author points ultimately to the paralyzing effect of anxiety and the need for a creative response to that which is the core of our anxiety.

The author explores the physiology and the mental aspects and attributes of anxiety within the context of an existential angle – living on the edge between meeting and non-meaning. What is meaning? He speaks of the genetic patterns of people because of competition among humans and the limitations of people not having access to resources that others have.

He reviews case studies providing historical context. Yet the reader will need to move beyond the text in up-to-date studies on the nature of the existential. Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy is an excellent read in a more readable style.

Still this book has much merit for referral and a step to an expanded examination of life and death issues today where the end of civilization may feel like the stuff of science fiction but in fact it is more real than ever before.

In Chapter 11 the author writes:

“Anxiety has a purpose. Originally the purpose was to protect the existence of the caveman from wild beasts and savage neighbors. Nowadays the occasions for anxiety are very different – we are afraid of losing out in the competition, feeling unwanted, isolated, and ostracized…after all is said and done, anxiety is our human awareness of the fact that each of us is a being confronted with nonbeing.” (Nonbeing or death is the destruction of an existence of which I am familiar….so what odes all the material world gain a person? To what end?).

The values in this work may be found in recognizing the seeming numberless facets of anxiety and the creative management of them through our own efforts and the efforts of others for support. Our relationships within and exterior to us may affect the outcome of how we live while alive.