One cannot expect a mature and fully complete picture of the human being from a young people. If one ever does find such a thing, it is in general the result, the fruit, of long culture in which much has been experienced and re-experienced, and where many different scientific, philosophic and religious traditions have merged throughout the centuries.
The picture of the human being which one finds at colleges and universities, for example, is a primitive one. It contains little more than what Darwinism taught at the close of the last century. The sociology one finds here is based in large part on Darwinian theories, whereas the psychology is rarely little more than a sort of Freudianism, likewise resting entirely on a historic/materialistic way of thinking. Neither the student nor the average American scarcely differentiates between psychology and psychoanalysis in the aforementioned sense. Speaking on psychology in a different way demands ample advance explanation. Such words as ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ have fallen into disuse in the field of psychology. Instead of using the word soul, for example, one prefers to say ‘emotional life’; instead of spirit, one says ‘mind’. Good friends of mine had warned me not to use the words soul and spirit in my lectures to student groups because it would make people think I was a theologian instead of a psychologist. But, because it seemed to me to be of the greatest importance to develop the concept of the soul, as belonging to the threefold being (body, soul and spirit) of man, it was impossible for me to follow this well-meant advice. The students at the different colleges and universities, however, proved to be highly receptive to such new and entirely different viewpoints and, after having gotten over their astonishment, they listened with the greatest attention. After a period of questions and answers, which was always very lively—the American likes to ask questions and does so with ease—it frequently happened that students asked me, ”Why don’t we ever hear things like that? We’re told that the human being is a mere product of heredity and environment.”
These new concepts of the being of man also led to the most interesting discussions at lecture sessions for psychologists and psychiatrists. On these occasions, it became particularly evident that the American is much more intent upon learning something new than is the European who, in similar circumstances, has a greater tendency to defend his old points of view.
This historic/materialistic picture of the human being makes it difficult to form truly concrete, accurate concepts about such matters as birth, life, illness and death. Nor are such concepts even present among the American people, although one does notice how these concepts are struggling to be born. The ideological and spiritual backgrounds which confer a deeper meaning upon such concepts, and which one still finds in large measure in the works of Emerson and his contemporaries, have been crowded out of sight by modern times. Thus, the preponderance of the outward, practical, even technical aspects of the birth of a child—the descent of a human spirit to earth—has become a matter of course. There are numerous clinics in the United States where childbirth is only brought about on certain days. When the time of confinement comes around, the young mother enters the clinic and, on certain days, Mondays and Thursdays, for example, all deliveries are performed with artificial aid. The possibility that a human spirit might be able to choose the moment in which it wishes to abandon the maternal organism, in accordance with a supreme spiritual wisdom, is of no consequence here. The inner, spiritual principles have been sacrificed to outward, practical ones. One mother told me how she had needed several days to accept the little one as her own, about the birth of whom she knew absolutely nothing, and whom she had found lying beside her upon awakening from the anesthesia. This anesthesia, in most cases in a light form to be sure, has likewise become a matter of course. The fear of pain is so universal that it has become quite natural to use any remedy whatsoever to fight it. But here, too, one begins to perceive a protest. A few years ago Life Magazine carried a lead article with an illustrated title page, devoted to Childbirth Without Fear, pleading the case of a more normal method. It is interesting, however, to see how it has become necessary to defend something in this manner which, for thousands of years, has been the most natural, normal thing known to the family of man.
It belongs to this mentality of optimism, this will to live, this being convinced of the right to happiness, that one dismisses suffering as a factor of human existence. People repeatedly approached me after one of my lectures in which I had referred to suffering in its deeper sense to ask, ”But why should we suffer?” In a talk which I had with a very gifted pianist, he expressed his opinion about Wagner and Bruckner, saying that he could not include them among the truly great composers because they were continually displaying their own suffering, ”They can’t stop suffering.”
There, where one finds such a strong aversion to suffering, the fear of illness and death is a matter of course. Newspapers and magazines are occupied with these matters here more than anywhere else in the world. Cancer, acute heart attacks and insanity are alternately described as public-health-enemy-number-one. The chats which people have with one another are likewise filled with these problems. One has the feeling that the utmost is being done in the fields of individual and social hygiene and learns, on the other hand, of the terrifying increase in the prevalence of certain illnesses. Because these illnesses are connected with suffering, and because one cannot accept the fact of suffering, fear arises, often subconsciously, but it can also take on a definitely neurotic character. One then clutches hopefully at the delusive promises made by scientific institutions, and reads with satisfaction that the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, has again made so-and-so many millions available for detecting, diagnosing and defeating these illnesses.
America and Americanism