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Freedom and Destiny: Rollo May on the Value of Despair as a Portal to Joy

Freedom and Destiny: Rollo May on the Value of Despair as a Portal to Joy

“There is no love of life without despair of life,” Albert Camus observed as he contemplated the relationship between happiness and despair shortly before his compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre penned his famous line that “human life begins on the far side of despair.” And yet we tend to relate to despair with extreme aversion, perceiving it as a source of suffering rather than a vitalizing force.

Few experiences spur despair more readily than the assault on freedom and the loss of agency — our sense that life, circumstance, or some other external actor is thwarting our desired outcomes.

But freedom and despair, argues the great existential psychologist Rollo May (April 21, 1909–October 22, 1994) in his 1981 book Freedom and Destiny (public library), are not the two poles of our spectrum of desire — rather, they are complementary forces that counterbalance each other. By recalibrating our relationship to despair, we stand to know freedom more intimately and completely.

Rollo May

May examines the centrality of freedom in our value system and our elemental experience of life:

The capacity to experience awe and wonder, to imagine and to write poetry, to conceive of scientific theories and great works of art presupposes freedom. All of these are essential to the human capacity to reflect.


Freedom is also unique in that it is the mother of all values. If we consider such values as honesty, love, or courage, we find, strangely enough, that they cannot be placed parallel to the value of freedom. For the other values derive their value from being free; they are dependent on freedom.


Freedom is thus more than a value itself: it underlies the possibility of valuing; it is basic to our capacity to value. Without freedom there is no value worthy of the name. In this time of the disintegration of concern for public weal and private honor, in this time of the demise of values, our recovery — if we are to achieve it — must be based on our coming to terms with this source of all values: freedom.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

But because the concept of freedom is so multifaceted, so dimensional, and so entwined with everything we hold dear, it is also difficult to capture its complete meaning. May offers an insightful and inspired definition:

Freedom consists of how you confront your limits, how you engage your destiny in day-to-day living.


Human dignity is based upon freedom and freedom upon human dignity. The one presupposes the other.

And yet we often lose sight of this daily self-creating aspect of freedom — May laments that we seem to have “too easily and readily seized upon freedom as our birthright and forgotten that each of us must rediscover it for ourselves.” Therein lies the central paradox of freedom — its indelible interplay with destiny, which Simone de Beauvoir captured beautifully a decade earlier in contemplating how chance and choice converge to make us who we are. Freedom, in this sense, lies in what we choose to do with the cards we’ve been dealt — but the cards are the cards.

May writes:

Freedom owes its vitality to destiny, and destiny owes its significance to freedom. Our talents, our gifts, are on loan, to be called in at any moment by death, by illness, or by any one of the countless other happenings over which we have no direct control. Freedom is that essential to our lives, but it is also that precarious.

Art Jacques Goldstyn by from Bertolt

When this precariousness plunges freedom to the existential bottom — when life hurls us into undesirable circumstances and razes us on the loss of agency — we succumb to despair. But here, in one of the book’s most revelatory parts, May makes a counterintuitive point — he frames despair as a constructive emotion, “often a necessary prelude to the greatest achievement.” When despair pins us to rock bottom and forces us to let go of everything we’ve clung to, including our own neuroses and illusory hopes, it allows us to build ourselves up anew in a way not possible within the comfortable parameters of life unperturbed by the unexpected.

May examines this fertile despair:

I am speaking of despair not as a “cosmic pout” nor as any kind of intellectual posture. If it is a mood put on to impress somebody or to express resentment toward anybody, it is not genuine despair.

Authentic despair is that emotion which forces one to come to terms with one’s destiny. It is the great enemy of pretense, the foe of playing ostrich. It is a demand to face the reality of one’s life… Despair is the smelting furnace which melts out the impurities in the ore. Despair is not freedom itself, but is a necessary preparation for freedom… Reality comes marching up to require that we drop all halfway measures and temporary exigencies and ways of being dishonest with ourselves and confront our naked lives.

In a sentiment of sobering pertinence to our own cultural climate, May adds:

The function of despair is to wipe away our superficial ideas, our delusionary hopes, our simplistic morality… It is important to remind ourselves of these points since there are a number of signs that we in America may be on the threshold of a period as a nation when we shall no longer be able to camouflage or repress our despair.

Artwork by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Much like boredom can serve as the seedbed of creativity, despair, May argues, not only isn’t the enemy of joy but levels the ground so that joy may bloom. Three decades before Toni Morrison made her beautiful case for building from the ground of despair, May writes:

Those who can feel healthy despair are often those who also can at the same time experience the most intense pleasure and joy… We believe more firmly in the dignity and the nobility of being human after seeing a performance of tragedy rather than comedy: the characters and the tragic downfall of Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, or even of Harry in The Iceman Cometh give us a conviction of the significance of life. As we leave the theater, we are not only relieved, we are inspired. The despair we have felt in the drama highlights its opposite, the nobility of life.


The worst condition of all is to boast about never having been in despair, for that means that the person has never been authentically conscious of himself.

But because despair, as anyone who has experienced it knows, seeds a state of profound unhappiness, May draws a vital distinction between happiness and joy, while noting that the good life invariably includes both at different times:

Happiness is a fulfillment of the past patterns, hopes, aims… Happiness is mediated, so far as we can tell, by the parasympathetic nervous system, which has to do with eating, contentment, resting, placidity. Joy is mediated by the opposing system, the sympathetic, which does not make one want to eat, but stimulates one for exploration. Happiness relaxes one; joy challenges one with new levels of experience. Happiness depends generally on one’s outer state; joy is an overflowing of inner energies and leads to awe and wonderment. Joy is a release, an opening up; it is what comes when one is able genuinely to “let go.” Happiness is associated with contentment; joy with freedom and an abundance of human spirit… Joy is new possibilities; it points toward the future. Joy is living on the razor’s edge; happiness promises satisfaction of one’s present state, a fulfillment of old longings. Joy is the thrill of new continents to explore; it is an unfolding of life.

A generation after Anaïs Nin extolled the generative power of inviting the unknown, May argues that what differentiates joy from happiness, above all, is their respective orientation to the familiar and the possible:

Happiness is related to security, to being reassured, to doing things as one is used to and as our fathers did them. Joy is a revelation of what was unknown before. Happiness often ends up in a placidity on the edge of boredom. Happiness is success. But joy is stimulating, it is the discovery of new continents emerging within oneself.

Happiness is the absence of discord; joy is the welcoming of discord as the basis of higher harmonies. Happiness is finding a system of rules which solves our problems; joy is taking the risk that is necessary to break new frontiers.


Joy … follows rightly confronted despair. Joy is the experience of possibility, the consciousness of one’s freedom as one confronts one’s destiny. In this sense despair, when it is directly faced, can lead to joy. After despair, the one thing left is possibility. We all stand on the edge of life, each moment comprising that edge. Before us is only possibility. This means the future is open.

Complement the abidingly insightful Freedom and Destiny with James Baldwin on freedom and how we limit ourselves, Friedrich Nietzsche on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, and Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, then revisit May on love and will in turbulent times.

Published May 30, 2017




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