Paul Tillich understood the need to balance the opposites – so that to have ‘being’ there has to be ‘non-being’ too but he sees this as the negation of everything; it has to be there as destruction has to be balanced as the opposite of creation. Non-being links to anxiety – for if we know that we are alive then we will also know that we can also not be alive. If we are fearful and afraid then that is usually about something in particular – in other words there is an object to focus on whereas anxiety is generalised and has no object. Fear can be faced and overcome but with anxiety ‘participation, struggle, and love with respect to it are impossible’. If we are left without a focus or a tactic to use as with fear then anxiety leaves us feeling overwhelmed and impotent often turning into depression. For Tillich it is the power of being that then stirs beneath anxiety so as he writes nonbeing strives toward being when ‘anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage’.
Tillich distinguishes three types of anxiety: that of fate and death (ontological); that of emptiness and loss of meaning (spiritual); and that of guilt and condemnation (moral). Each of the three can be applied to the personal as realities in an individual’s life and to the social/ collective. Ontological anxiety the fear of fate and death applies to everyone and we cannot get away from it: ‘everybody is aware of the complete loss of self which biological extinction implies.’ Here he uses the word ‘fate’ to refer to ‘mini-death’ where we are open to any change at any time which leaves us aware of our weakness and vulnerability through disease and accidents. Nonbeing is not only felt through death and fate but also spiritually in the encounter with meaninglessness, the result of which is the second kind of anxiety; the antidote is spiritual self-affirmation, which ‘occurs in every moment in which man lives creatively in the various spheres of meaning’. Yet the second anxiety is spiritual anxiety which threatens our entire sense of self – here the antidote is to accept the possibility of the despair of emptiness and lack of meaning the danger is to deny this and so embrace fanaticism and deny all doubt. Anxiety linked to guilt (the third one) is when we fall short of what we know we could be and become and end up rejecting our self.
Interestingly Tillich sees the age in which he was writing (post-war 1950s) as visibly spiritual anxious – surely we are even more so in the 21s century with our emphasis on materialism and denial of the spirituality of nature.
The Courage to Be
Over thirty years ago I went into psychotherapy with an analytical psychologist, a Jungian who had trained at the Society of Analytical Psychology in London. About a year into the work she lent me her copy of The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich first published in 1952. Eventually I bought my own copy which I carried around for years almost like a transitional object but also because the very title was an impetus to take a leap into daring to become the person that I was meant to be.
It was D.W. Winnicott who said that the main problem for children brought up in the 1950s and 1960s was being crushed – that’s another way of saying compliant. In other words you behave the way that the parent(s) wants you to behave but this is managed in such a way – by some parents at least so that the very energy of the life force is subdued. From this comes the false self, a persona that is presented to the world and where sometimes the true/essential self remains hidden. I couldn’t understand the book very well at that stage but I knew it was a message.
Paul Tillich was a German Protestant philosopher and theologian and he writes about the concept of what he calls ‘courage’ and how this can be mobilised to confront anxiety. The great thing is that Tillich has knowledge of depth psychology as well as the ideas of existentialism. Tillich was writing less about a particular individual’s reasons for being anxious and rather looking at it as a modern psychological epidemic leading to a loss of meaning. For him courage is the treatment or the antidote to anxiety in the sense of affirming one’s own life even in the face of the certainty of death and given that our life may seem to have no apparent purpose. At the heart of his exploration is the idea of the guilt that we carry for not being ‘acceptable’ in our own eyes – one might see here the endless striving to prove oneself and the disappointment of not being ‘perfect’.
Looking again at my rather tattered copy I can see how male dominated the language is but there’s some good things to take from his explorations. Tillich defines courage as ‘the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being’; it’s an ethical act because we are affirming our being alive despite all the elements of existence which conflict with this essential self-affirmation. In Tillich’s look at the philosophical background to the idea of courage he includes the writing of Thomas Aquinas who sees courage united with ideas of faith, hope and love and how it can be a gift of the Divine Spirit.
Generally Tillich is writing about the courage for the true self to be – he uses the term ‘one’s essential being’.