The Courage to Be

Depending on one’s nature and experiences the New Year can be seen as a time of opportunity or seen with some trepidation and dread … and that can apply to personal concerns, to the immediate community and to the world situation.

In 1982 I began to see a Jungian analytical psychologist who loaned me a copy of a book The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich, which I then carried with me at all times wrapped up in a see through plastic bag. Every so often I would look at the title which of course was highly symbolic, but over time I also read the book and made many notes from it. I’m not sure what I made of the book at that time, I remember finding it quite difficult, and eventually bought my own copy and returned the original.

Looking again at my notes written all that time ago I can see that the book is remarkably philosophical and insightful about religion with a deep understanding of the psychological.

Tillich quotes Seneca who points to those who ‘do not want to live and do not know how to die’ and that no courage is as great as that which is born of utter desperation. For Tillich the courage to be is the courage to affirm one’s own reasonable nature over against what is accidental in us, so this is about the affirmation of one’s essential being in spite of anxieties and desires and this affirmation creates joy. It is also participation in the universal or divine act of self-affirmation.

Everyone carries anxiety because being has non-being within itself and anxiety is the state in which a being is aware of its possible non-being. Tillich writes about the different types of anxiety: fate and death; emptiness and loss of meaning; guilt and condemnation. These anxieties can at times overwhelm us and from this comes despair. The pain of despair is then that a being is aware of itself as unable to affirm itself because of the power of non-being. All human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair.

Tillich notes that there are periods of anxiety within civilisation, where what is potentially present in every individual become general if accustomed structures of meaning, power, belief and order disintegrate. These structures keep anxiety bound within a protective system of courage by participation.

It’s hard not to feel concern about the state of the world at present and I remember in the 1980s a similar state of worry about nuclear war and the proliferation of weapons, and there were protests and participation in campaigns which both changed minds and did function to hold a place for the anxiety to be managed. Now plus that possibility there is climate change with regular news about extinction of species and a number of proud and autocratic politicians in power or about to take power. The message from The Courage to Be feels timely to hold to… or perhaps I’m just being unduly pessimistic…