This is the first in a series of four articles that will explore Tom Greening’s (1992) Existential Challenges and Responses. I will explore one existential challenge in each article with the intent of contextualizing that challenge to contemporary issues through a personal lens. My aim is to demonstrate that existential concerns are cross-cultural, political, and socially complex. These concerns transcend our differences, regardless of etiology and language of existential philosophy and psychology. One of the foundational aspects of existential-humanistic psychology that I admire most is the value of humility and openness. These values lend themselves well to adaptation to local and global concerns as they pertain to current times.
Existential-humanistic psychotherapy, like other treatment modalities, inevitably has a history. Although history may inform the “here and now,” it is not the only aspect that is present. The hermeneutic circle is never ending. The past and culture inform our language, implicit and/or explicit rules, and an additional wide array of constructs through which we make sense of the world. However, the world is constantly evolving, and the way we experience that world in the present also shades our experience of history. I recently read a quote by the 14th Dalai Lama: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” I was deeply thrilled to witness a religious leader of such caliber who had the ability to be open to evolution of thought. I wondered if science would be the only vocation that could be powerful enough to influence change. What about art, the human sciences, or a discovery in education? Certainly empirical science does not hold court over other disciplines regarding knowledge. Still, this acknowledgement by the 14th Dalai Lama was a good starting point, and even more excellent intent.
Regardless, one of the criticisms of existential-humanistic psychotherapy is that its foundation was laid by Western European privileged white men. However, contemporary leaders in the field like Orah Krug and Kirk Schneider have plainly acknowledged that existential-humanistic etiology has its biases, and have encouraged practitioners to contextualize and expand upon existential-humanistic theory and practice in a way that embraces the individual and collective nuances of current living. Texts such as Existential-Humanistic Therapy (Schneider & Krug, 2010) and Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy (2008), edited by Kirk Schneider, demonstrate effective application of E-H techniques to case examples that include clients of wide ranging experience and cultural backgrounds, as well as contributed chapters by leaders in the field who have chosen to apply existential-humanistic treatment to different cultures and marginalized populations. Indeed, existential-humanistic psychology is evolving, continuously acknowledging the need for adaptability to a politically complex world.
The four challenges that Greening (1992) addresses follow:
- Life and death
- Meaning and absurdity
- Freedom and determinism
- Community and aloneness
I will be first addressing life and death, as it is most obvious given the very nature of our existence. If we are conscious, it is assumed collectively that we are alive. Additionally, we all are faced with death, whether we recognize that reality or not. However, there is great mystery inherent in both living and dying. Regarding life, most people do not remember making their entrance into the world unless in an altered state of consciousness, and even then the memories are questionable. We trust the reports of others, as well as the awareness we have of our bodies, emotions, and thoughts. There is something similar about death. I wouldn’t even entertain the thought of memory of death, other than near death experiences. Based on what we have seen of others who die, there is no conversation with the deceased other than in dreams (also questionable regarding verity), and therefore we could guess that there is no memory. These very conditions of birth (i.e., moving into life) and death lend to the great mystery of our existence. How did we get here? Why are we here? What happens after we die? Our most profoundly real conditions beg for understanding that we most likely will not attain. As a result, different cultures have developed a wide variety of systems that attempt to make sense of mortality. Mortality is a word that both embraces life and death.
On a less conscious level, birth is experienced in a variety of ways by people based on time and location. In the past, infant mortality rates were high. Families accepted that some of their children may not survive. Prior to my own mother, both my grandmother and great grandmother lost children shortly after birth. My great grandmother’s daughter died of pneumonia and was buried in a nameless grave in the great plains of Montana. My grandmother’s daughter died in a hospital of leukemia at the age of two. The understanding of these two experiences was different, however. My grandmother knew about her little sister’s death. The children were witness to the loss. In the context of those times on the plains, and given the limited health care, the death of a young child was normalized. However, my own mother did not know that her little sister even existed. The doctor at the time advised my grandmother to keep their daughter, Shelly, a secret for the sake of the family. Shelly was born with a chromosomal defect, and eventually became ill. This is when medical care was more accessible, and infant mortality rates were much lower. As a result, our family suffered from a secret that created a sense of great misunderstanding regarding unprocessed grief. The cultural zeitgeist played such an integral part of my family’s lives, and both of these experiences related to how children came into the world. Both outcomes were very different. One was dealt with, and the other left untended. Both situations were a result of good intentions, but the outcomes were not a result of intentions. I look back and question the lack of wisdom that my grandmother’s doctor displayed.
The same could be true for death. With the increased access to advanced medical care, our approach to death has changed. At one time, people could not be resuscitated. There was an acceptance of death as a natural cycle of life. Now, however, we try to keep people alive even in old age beyond the point of comfort. People do not die at home, and when people reach an old age they are sent to live outside the home. When I worked for Agesong Senior Living, I had friends who would not go with me for visits. When I asked them why, they said that being with elders in a managed care facility brought them too close to their fears around how they might die. Our culture certainly has a cult of youth, and perhaps fear of mortality plays a hand in this false idolization. I watched people die in hospice at Agesong. It was just as beautiful as when I gave birth to my own children.
Unless a death has occurred by accident, people die in cold, sterile environments and sometimes separated from loved ones. We have hospice care available to attempt to bridge the gap, and yet, I suspect that this is not where or how people would choose to die, if given that choice. We have somehow divorced death from spirituality and made it into a purely biological process. It seems to me that this is a result of Western medicine. Still, I have heard stories about people who insisted that they die at home, surrounded by their loved ones. It seems that for the terminally ill, even when approaching death they must be their own strongest advocates (or at least be lucky enough to have a very strong family advocate). What a stark contrast. Adversely, some cultures may feel deprived of the health care advances that they lack. It is certainly not a black and white situation, and this highlights the importance of context in respect to our communal experiences and values regarding life and death.
I write from my own cultural experience, which is as a Western European Caucasian woman who was born and raised in the United States. However, I suspect that something of what I have shared would resonate with anybody who knows their own history. The entire world has evolved in similar ways, and thus the experience of birth and death has also evolved. Medical advances are making their way across the globe, and yet, many people are developing an increased interest in alternative, Eastern medicine and integrating this into their medical treatments. More women are birthing at home with midwives. More people are opting for more control over their death, despite the pressure to die in a medical environment “just in case” they can be revived. Our culture is becoming increasingly diverse. We will not abandon our heritage, but we can be open to new ways of being, and this includes birthing (i.e., living) and dying.
Regarding a healthy response, Greening asserts one that is balanced. We do not need to be overly optimistic in our desire to defy death, and yet, we need not raise the white flag to mortality too early. We can acknowledge the natural cycles of life and death. The two can serve as counterpoints to each other, supporting the balance and highlighting each other’s value. Death is a great reminder that living matters. We can embrace more, and yet we can also hope for the best death imaginable. Still, how we are born and how we die we have nearly no control over. This is the aspect that binds us all together: a sense of mystery and surrender, hopefully with the intent of savoring every moment we have the good fortune to be a part of. Even better, the more we share our diverse experiences, the more we learn how to adapt, cope, and perhaps even embrace life and death as we know it.
Greening, T. (1992). Existential challenges and responses. The Humanistic Psychologist, 20(1).
Schneider, K., & Krug, O. (2010). Existential-humanistic therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
Schneider, K., (Ed.), (2008). Existential-integrative psychotherapy: Guideposts to the core of practice. New York: Routledge.
— Candice Hershman