Paul Tillich and “The Courage to Be”

 

Change is hard. Change is so hard that most people solve the problem by opting
to not change, clinging to the routine of their life even if it is most painful.
People prefer to follow the admonishment of Hamlet and “cling to these ills that
we have than fly to others that we know not of.”

This is true individually and collectively. Social scientists teach us that
during times of social transition anxiety is very intense sometimes the
society’s adaptations are not ideal. Paul Tillich, a noted theologian from the
20th century, declared in The Courage to Be (1952) that the anxiety arises from
the threat of “non-being” and that this threat is found with conservative and
liberal extremes.

It is significant that the three main periods of anxiety appear at the end of an era. The anxiety which, in its different forms, is potentially present in every individual becomes general if the accustomed structures of meaning, power, belief, and order disintegrated. These structures, as long as they are in force, keep anxiety bound within a protective system of courage by participation. The individual who participates in the institutions and ways of life of such a system is not liberated from his personal anxieties but he has means of overcoming them with well-known methods. In periods of great changes these methods no longer work. Conflicts between the old, which tries to maintain itself, often with new means, and the new, which deprives the old of its intrinsic power, produce anxiety in all directions. Nonbeing, in such a situation, has a double face, resembling two types of nightmare (which are perhaps, expressions of an awareness of these two faces). The one type is the anxiety of annihilating narrowness, of the impossibility of escape and the horror of being trapped. The other is the anxiety of annihilating openness, of infinite formless space into which one falls without a place to fall upon. Social situations like those described have the character of both a trap without exit and of an empty, dark, and unknown void. Both faces of the same reality arouse the latent anxiety of every individual who looks at them. Today most of us do look at them.

Non-being is merely the emptiness that we find when we lose the “fig leaf” (or “ego identity”) that we donned in our Garden of Eden.  And those “fig-leaves”, be they conservative or liberal…or at any point between the two extremes…are very difficult to let go.

 

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