By James Schlett
Eighty years ago, in 1942, a graduate student named Rollo May was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, the early twentieth century’s version of COVID-19. He later joined the thousands of people who retreated to the Adirondacks to help save them from the disease, which what was then known as “the captain of death.” At the time of his diagnosis, May was a former pastor who had recently enrolled in a psychology program at Columbia University Teachers College in New York. Tuberculosis had threatened to cut short this life that showed so much promise and later heralded the American existential psychology movement.
May was admitted to the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake in 1944, according to Robert Abzug’s new biography of May, Psyche and Soul in America. What May discovered in his bed there later helped the profession of psychology develop a more humanistic approach toward treating people. And it is worth remembering as pandemic-induced anxieties today cloud our ability to recognize ourselves and others as human beings. Where once we saw individuals, we now too easily fall into the temptation of seeing abstractions of people: liberals and conservatives, vaccinated and unvaccinated, oppressors and oppressed.
Tuberculosis ravaged May, leaving him at one point with a half-eaten lung, at 130 pounds, and coughing uncontrollably. His stay at the sanatorium honed his outlook on life and psychology. Doctors typically prescribed breathing the fresh air and eating a proper diet. Aside from that, all he could do was mostly read and stare at the ceiling and wait for his monthly X-ray to tell him whether the cavity in his lung was larger or smaller. May, like many in COVID-19 patients in hospitals today, “lived quite consciously in a state of constant anxiety which I would characterize like a horse running wild.”
Later in life, May said it was it was in his sanatorium bed where “I became an existentialist.” He stopped seeing himself as just a patient with a passive role in his recovery. “Being,” the existentialists’ favorite term, is a process. And a choice. “To be or not to be” is not just a line in a play. May believed choosing one or the other produces anxiety, which can paralyze our ability to decide or spur us into “frantic activity” that gives the impression of a decision without one actually being made. But anxiety can also be the mother of creativity, when it is met with courage. May said, “I saw that no one can directly and successfully combat his destiny, but each of us, by virtue of the small margin of freedom that prevails even in the sanitorium bed, can choose his attitude toward that destiny. Shall it be servile abdication or some form of courage?”
May and his fellow existentialists, such as his mentor the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, were strong believers in freedom. They believed that, whether facing disease, depression or despots, people have within them the freedom to choose how they confront these challenges and shape whom they become. Without this freedom, which demands courage, we would essentially be physical machines reacting to whatever acts upon or within us. That is why, in the decade after his Adirondack convalescence, May led the profession of psychology in fighting political battles in Albany to oppose physicians’ and psychiatrists’ efforts to statutorily reduce emotions and mental conditions to biology and make psychotherapy the exclusive province of medicine.
As reviewed in my new book, Frontier Struggles, May and his “little band” of New York State psychologists in the 1950s took on the nation’s most powerful lobby – organized medicine – and challenged its claims that people are biologically determined. For example, in urging New York Governor Thomas Dewey to veto a bill that would have created a bill to license state psychologists in 1951, the American Psychiatric Association’s medical director, Daniel Blain, said, “It is our belief that the ‘functional’ psychoses,’ depressions, anxiety states, conversion hysterias, psycho-neuroses are medically sick people, totally sick people, and not just psychologically ‘maladjusted.’”
Dewey did veto that bill in 1951, and a year later May became the chairman of the Joint Council of New York State Psychologists on Legislation, which repeatedly beat back organized medicine’s attempts to pass anti-psychology legislation in Albany. The Joint Council was also chiefly responsible for passing a law in Albany to regulate the profession and that set a national standard in 1956. At the height of the so-called “battles of the professions” in 1953, May said, “What our society needs for its survival is not new drugs or methods for curing physical ailments, important as these are. What is needed, rather, is that people be helped to learn to live together harmoniously. If we simply continue emphasizing that man is a physical machine, we produce only more effective soldiers and our civilization will indeed be threatened.”
The threat May faced in Tuberculosis, much like that we face in COVID-19, is not only to our lives but also our beings. As My asked himself, “Shall it be servile abdication or some form of courage?” How you answer this question will influence how you see yourself as a human being blessed and burdened with freedom —and whether you see others as the same.
Image courtesy of the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections & Archives, Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University
James Schlett is the author of Frontier Struggles: Rollo May and the Little Band of Psychologists Who Saved Humanism (University of Akron Press, 2021); and A Not Too Greatly Changed Eden: The Story of the Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks (Cornell University Press, 2015). He lives in Colonie, New York.