Pioneers of Transpersonal Psychology Transpersonal Psychology Pioneers

Rollo May

A brief biography

Rollo May was one of the founders of the humanistic psychology movement, and is considered by most to be one of the most influential American psychologists of the twentieth century.

He was born on April 21, 1909, in Ada, Ohio. He was the second of six children of Earl Tittle May and Matie Boughton. His father was a field secretary for the Young Men’s Christian Association and moved the family to Michigan when young Rollo (given the name Reece at birth) was still a small child.

May began his college career at Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (now Michigan State University). While there, he was not exactly a stellar student, and he co-founded a magazine that was critical of the state legislature. This caused quite a lot of political difficulties for him at the college, so he transferred to Oberlin College , a small liberal arts school in Ohio. There he began to be more successful in his studies, and majored in English, with a minor in Greek literature and history. He graduated in 1930, and spent the next three years teaching English in Salonika, Greece. He had the opportunity during that time to attend seminars in Vienna, Austria taught by Alfred Adler.

In 1933 May entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Although his studies there were interrupted for two years when his parents were divorced (he returned to Michigan at that time to help care for younger siblings—particularly one sister that had a psychotic breakdown) he earned his divinity degree from Union in 1938. It was during his years at Union that he became friends with one of his professors, the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich.

In 1942, May was stricken with tuberculosis, and had to spend three years in a sanatorium. He often cited this time as the turning point of his life. When faced with the possibility of his own death, he filled the empty hours with reading, particularly the writings of Kierkegaard, who became the inspiration for much of May’s later theories.

Upon his recovery, he went on to study psychoanalysis at White Institute, where he became acquainted with such folks as Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm. He then went to Columbia University in New York, where in 1949 he received the first PhD in clinical psychology that institution ever awarded. In the decades that followed his graduation, May’s dissertation The Meaning of Anxiety, published in 1950, and revised in 1977, had a major influence on the development of humanistic psychology. Part of his argument was that Western culture was in an “age of anxiety” and that finding ways to properly channel his own high anxiety had been a major factor in overcoming his tuberculosis.

Rollo May went on to teach at a variety of top schools and was a prolific and influential author. His book Man’s Search for Himself was published in 1953. He co-edited in 1958 (with Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger) the book Existence, which introduced existential psychology to the US. Some of his other most influential books were Existential Psychology in 1961, Psychology and the Human Dilemma in 1967, The Courage to Create in 1975, Freedom and Destiny in 1981, and The Cry for Myth in 1991. Two of his works received numerous awards. Love and Will published in 1969, won the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa and became a guidebook for political and social activists. He published Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence in 1972, and it won the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award from the New York Society of Clinical Psychologists.

He wrote several other books, including The Art of Counseling, My Quest for Beauty, and The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology. He was also editor or co-author of such works as Symbolism in Religion and Literature, Dreams and Symbols; Man’s Unconscious Language, and Politics and Innocence: A Humanistic Debate. Many feel that one of the reasons Rollo May’s writings were so influential is that they were aimed at the general reader, and since they are not full of professional jargon, they are very readable. He also made several sound recordings so that he could reach an even larger audience.

His contributions to the field of psychology were innumerable, and covered many subjects. The most frequently discussed have been as varied as transference and encounter, anxiety, freedom, power and innocence, creativity, love and will, and culture and society.
Rollo May spent the last years of his life in Tiburon, California, until he died of congestive heart failure in 1994.

A favorite quote from Rollo May’s book The Courage to Create is very helpful as a motivational tool:

“If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution.”