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Love and Will: The Great Existential Psychologist Rollo May on Apathy, Transcendence, and Our Human Task in Times of Radical Transition

Love and Will: The Great Existential Psychologist Rollo May on Apathy, Transcendence, and Our Human Task in Times of Radical Transition

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” Albert Camus wrote in his 1951 meditation on what it really means to be a rebel. At the heart of this sentiment are the two complementary forces of love and will, for a loving regard for the future requires a willful commitment to rising to the problems of the present and transcending its tumults — a dependency as true in our personal lives as it is in our political lives, and one which demands a capacity for withstanding uncertainty.

That essential interrelation is what the great existential psychologist Rollo May (April 21, 1909–October 22, 1994) examined nearly two decades later in his influential 1969 book Love and Will (public library).

Rollo May

Drawing on his quarter-century experience as a psychoanalytic therapist working with people trying to wrest from their inner turmoil an existential serenity, May writes:

Love and will are interdependent and belong together. Both are conjunctive processes of being — a reaching out to influence others, molding, forming, creating the consciousness of the other. But this is only possible, in an inner sense, if one opens oneself at the same time to the influence of the other.

Writing half a century ago, May examines the consequence of warping the balance of love and will, speaking with astonishing precision to and of our own time:

The fruits of future values will be able to grow only after they are sown by the values of our history. In this transitional [time], when the full results of our bankruptcy of inner values is brought home to us, I believe it is especially important that we seek the source of love and will.


The striking thing about love and will in our day is that, whereas in the past they were always held up to us as the answer to life’s predicaments, they have now themselves become the problem. It is always true that love and will become more difficult in a transitional age; and ours is an era of radical transition. The old myths and symbols by which we oriented ourselves are gone, anxiety is rampant; we cling to each other and try to persuade ourselves that what we feel is love; we do not will because we are afraid that if we choose one thing or one person we’ll lose the other, and we are too insecure to take that chance. The bottom then drops out of the conjunctive emotions and processes — of which love and will are the two foremost examples. The individual is forced to turn inward; he becomes obsessed with the new form of the problem of identity, namely, Even-if-I-know-who-I-am, I-have-no-significance. I am unable to influence others. The next step is apathy. And the step following that is violence. For no human being can stand the perpetually numbing experience of his own powerlessness.

Art from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind by Catherine Lepage

May argues that during times of radical transition, when the societal structures we’ve used as external guides begin to fall apart, we are apt to turn inward and rely on our own consciousness. Such times, therefore, become a critical testing ground for how well we are able to wield the complementary forces of love and will. This grand personal responsibility can swell into a source of anxiety which, upon reaching its most extreme and unbearable limit, festers into apathy — when we continually face dangers we feel powerless to overcome, we resort to this final self-defense mechanism of shutting down both love and will. And yet in these two capacities lies the sole mechanism of our salvation and sanity. May writes:

The interrelation of love and will inheres in the fact that both terms describe a person in the process of reaching out, moving toward the world, seeking to affect others or the inanimate world, and opening himself to be affected; molding, forming, relating to the world or requiring that it relate to him. This is why love and will are so difficult in an age of transition, when all the familiar mooring places are gone.

In a sentiment that parallels Hannah Arendt’s insight into how bureaucracy breeds violence, May adds:

There is a dialectical relationship between apathy and violence. To live in apathy provokes violence; and … violence promotes apathy. Violence is the ultimate destructive substitute which surges in to fill the vacuum where there is no relatedness… When inward life dries up, when feeling decreases and apathy increases, when one cannot affect or even genuinely touch another person, violence flares up as a daimonic necessity for contact, a mad drive forcing touch in the most direct way possible.


Apathy is the withdrawal of will and love … a suspension of commitment. It is necessary in times of stress and turmoil; and the present great quantity of stimuli is a form of stress. But apathy … leads to emptiness and makes one less able to defend oneself, less able to survive. However understandable the state we are describing by the term apathy is, it is also essential that we seek to find a new basis for the love and will which have been its chief casualties.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

May examines the antidote to apathy through the lens of the three central elements of love and will — eros, the ancient Greek manifestation of love that drives toward higher forms of being and relationship; the daimonic, which represents the intermediary between the divine and the mortal; and intentionality, the imagination’s drive to transmute individual impulses into interpersonal experience. He writes:

As the function of eros, both within us and in the universe itself, is to draw us toward the ideal forms, it elicits in us the capacity to reach out, to let ourselves be grasped, to preform and mold the future. It is the self-conscious capacity to be responsive to what might be. The daimonic, that shadowy side which, in modern society, inhabits the underground realms as well as the transcendent realms of eros, demands integration from us on the personal dimension of consciousness. Intentionality is an imaginative attention which underlies our intentions and informs our actions. It is the capacity to participate in knowing or performing the art proleptically — that is, trying it on for size, performing it in imagination. Each of these emphases points toward a deeper dimension in human beings. Each requires a participation from us, an openness, a capacity to give of ourselves and receive into ourselves. And each is an inseparable part of the basis of love and will.

With an eye to the future, which is now our present, May considers the pathway to finding such a fertile basis of love and will:

What is necessary … is a new consciousness in which the depth and meaning of personal relationship will occupy a central place. Such an embracing consciousness is always required in an age of radical transition. Lacking external guides, we shift our morality inward; there is a new demand upon the individual of personal responsibility. We are required to discover on a deeper level what it means to be human.

Echoing Alfred Kazin’s insistence on the necessity of embracing our contradictions, May adds:

The only way of resolving — in contrast to solving — the questions is to transform them by means of deeper and wider dimensions of consciousness. The problems must be embraced in their full meaning, the antinomies resolved even with their contradictions. They must be built upon; and out of this will arise a new level of consciousness.

In a sentiment of astonishing pertinence to our own tumultuous and transitional time, May frames our highest responsibility to ourselves and to the future:

The new age which knocks upon the door is as yet unknown, seen only through beclouded windows. We get only hints of the new continent into which we are galloping: foolhardy are those who attempt to blueprint it, silly those who attempt to forecast it, and absurd those who irresponsibly try to toss it off by saying that the “new man will like his new world just as we like ours.” … But whatever the new world will be, we do not choose to back into it. Our human responsibility is to find a plane of consciousness which will be adequate to it and will fill the vast impersonal emptiness of our technology with human meaning.

Echoing Bertrand Russell’s abiding assertion that “not all wisdom is new, nor is all folly out of date,” May adds:

We stand on the peak of the consciousness of previous ages, and their wisdom is available to us. History — that selective treasure house of the past which each age bequeaths to those that follow — has formed us in the present so that we may embrace the future. What does it matter if our insights, the new forms which play around the fringes of our minds, always lead us into virginal land where, like it or not, we stand on strange and bewildering ground. The only way out is ahead, and our choice is whether we shall cringe from it or affirm it.

For in every act of love and will — and in the long run they are both present in each genuine act — we mold ourselves and our world simultaneously. This is what it means to embrace the future.

Love and Will is an illuminating read in its totality. Complement it with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, a contemporary of May’s, on the art of living, Nobel-winning writer Toni Morrison on the creative person’s task in volatile times, and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility.

Published May 11, 2017




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