The Courage to Be

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’.