The psychologist and author Rollo May (1909-1994) in his 1972 book Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence described contracting tuberculosis in his early thirties when there was no known medication for this disease. He writes that his sense of hopelessness and feelings of defeat left him week and the possibility he may not survive. He realized when he and the other innocent patients in the sanatorium accepted their passivity in the face of their own tuberculosis diagnoses their very acceptance of powerlessness allowed the condition to slowly steal their life breath away. May writes that it was not until he engaged the meaning of personal responsibility resulting into “assertion of my own will to live” (p. 71) did he began to fight and participate with his body in getting well (p. 71-73).
May used this experience to understand the patients who came to him for therapy: Patients who felt they were powerless in their personal relationships and who then felt doomed to remain passively innocent while others did violence to them (p. 78). He describes patients as having “no effective bridge” (p. 81) to understanding and changing these significant relationships.
As I ponder Rollo May’s concepts this question emerges. How do we bridge this gap between the powerless and the powerful in life, a gap that can exists regardless of the situation one finds themselves in, be it interpersonal relationship, culture, politics or a worldview?
May tells us, the bridge to others is power. Power of the type that comes from self-realization and assertion be it personal and or political. This is power of the healing type. Self-actualization, assertion and affirmation engage the power inherent in personal responsibility. The difficult part to our understanding of power concerns the relationship of innocence and personal responsibility. This connection requires an understanding of the limitations of innocence.
May believed that as a human race we could no longer afford to hide behind an erroneous belief in one’s own innocence. That path leads to powerlessness and the potential plunder of our personal life force affecting our choices and eventually the course of life.
Archetypal Psychotherapist and anger management specialist, Dr. Victoria Shackelford offers a review of May’s thoughts in the hope of opening the dialogue on the sources of violence in our personal lives and in the political arena.
Dr. Shackelford invites others to explore Rollo May’s thoughts and engage with the relationship between Power, Innocence and Violence and how it continues to currently operate in personal lives and on the world stage. Stay tuned for future installments covering Rollo May’s work.
Dr. Shackelford covers these main points:
Part I. “Power and Powerlessness”.
Part II. “The Limits of Innocence”
Part II. “Innocence and violence”
Rollo May asks the uncomfortable questions:
“Can violence also have something to do with innocence—or, does innocence invite it’s own murder?
While this is a difficult and uncomfortable question to ponder Jacob Bronowskis poem (in The Face of Violence) offer some clues:
Violence is here
In the world of the sane,
And violence is a symptom.
I hear it in the headlong weeping of men
who have failed.
I see it in the terrible dreams of boys
Whose adolescence repeats all