I have been interested in Existentialism for as long as I can remember. As a college freshman I took a course on Walt Whitman and wrote a paper on the existential ideas presented in Whitman’s poem, Song of Myself. Before I knew it, I was knee deep in existential concepts such as authenticity, existence precedes essence, freedom, choice, responsibility, meaning, anxiety and nothingness.
When I went to graduate school for a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, I selected a school that embraced the views of Carl Rogers and an existential/humanist approach to psychology. I took a course on Existentialism and wrote a paper on The Quest for Meaning.
Choosing to attend Saybrook, named for the Old Saybrook, Connecticut conference in 1964 when leading existential/humanistic psychologists presented alternative views to mainstream psychology, was the perfect “philosophical fit” for me. I became reacquainted with the works of Carl Rogers, Rollo May, James Bugental and Abraham Maslow. I often say I did not choose Saybrook – Saybrook chose me! I even had the opportunity to participate in Expressive Arts Therapy with Natalie Rogers, daughter of Carl Rogers, in her studio. How fitting that Natalie Rogers would be the commencement speaker when I graduated in 2005!
For my Saybrook dissertation, I conducted a study on Creativity and Aging – A Grounded Theory Study of Creative Older Individuals. I interviewed twenty individuals ranging from age 65 to 102. Ten of the individuals had earned their livings through a variety of creative activities; ten had been employed and turned to full-time creativities when they “retired” from their professions.
Creativity is central to Existentialism. Rollo May defined creativity as “the process of bringing something new into being” (The Courage to Create, p. 39) which we are constantly doing as we develop awareness and make decisions that move us toward the continuum of being authentic. What leapt out at me from the extensive interviews I conducted with twenty creative older individuals was their authenticity.
Rollo May defined authenticity as taking responsibility for one’s own existence rather than following the crowd (Existence, p. 118). In The Search for Authenticity, Bugental emphasized that the authentic person has awareness – of self, relationships, and the world. The authentic individual is constantly in the process of making choices, takes responsibility for them, and is aware they have consequences (p. 103). Therefore, authenticity is an ideal just as Maslow’s self-actualization is an ideal. Those who do not strive for authenticity are faced with the anxiety that comes with living an inauthentic existence – their life will lack meaning and they will face nothingness.
The creative older individuals I interviewed linked creativity with authenticity. Ivan, an 83 year-old artist and former cartoonist for The New Yorker, defined creativity as “something original, something that has honesty and bite in it.” Sophie, a 102 year old artist said, “Creativity is making a hand-made sweater against a machine-made sweater – it comes from you.” Tom, a management consultant and ordained Episcopal priest said, “being creative often involves not knowing what the end point is but embarking on a voyage of discovery to find it with those people you’ve convinced to go with you.” These creative older individuals were “authentic works of art” in themselves!
In order to be authentic, participants often had to go against what others believed they should do. Rachel, an author and rare book seller, refused to study the Arabic astrology her dissertation Chair at Columbia demanded she study. Judith, a writer and scholar, refused to stay in a “secure” and “tenured” teaching job she did not like. Barry refused to stay in Iowa with his family and moved to California. Bernard, a poet, refused to approve a design for a machine that would have been more profitable to produce yet more dangerous to operate. Wilson insisted on going to art school even though his father said, “Art is no way to make a living.” Ivan summed up the attitude of these creative individuals when he said, “I have a lot of respect for people who do their own thing.”
Participants scored significantly higher than the normative data on the Short Index of Self-Actualization and the Life Review Index, which measures if one feels life has meaning and to what degree one feels fulfilled. Participants said their relationships and creative activities gave their lives meaning. Those who were married said creativity added to their relationships and their partners were very supportive of their creative endeavors. Several participants ended marriages because they did not feel their partner supported their creativity. Some participants who did not create as a profession were able to use their creativity in professions such as teaching and consulting. Others found their lives had more meaning and purpose when they could devote full time to creative activities. Jack, who was much happier once he left his job as a business manager and could devote his life to painting said, “I was a square peg in a round hole. I have really always been an artist. I don’t know how much longer I would have wanted to live if I had to continue working in the business world.”
Ivan summed up his feelings concerning creativity when he said, “I think it is a blessing to do creative work. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I haven’t.” Thus, creativity contributed to participants’ ongoing development, authenticity, and created meaning for their lives. They thought for themselves and seemed to follow Whitman’s advice from Song of Myself, “You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.”
As Bugental cautioned, in art and creating our own lives, it is best not to use a predrawn outline according to another’s chart or to adopt a “draw by numbers” approach. There are no “givens” or “ultimate values” – “only the transformation of nothingness into somethingness may be termed creativity” (The Search for Authenticity, p. 28). I agree. I think “only the transformation of nothingness into somethingness” may be termed authenticity
— Christina Robertson