"Life is not so much beginnings and endings as it is middles, middles that don't measure up -- and our happiness depends on how we come to terms with the pale reflections of our dreams. (Paul D. Zimmerman, "Middles and Muddles," review of film "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Newsweek, September 27, 1971, 106)

Adrian van Kaam (1920-2007) - Some Reflections

Adrian van Kaam

AdrianVanKaamAdrian van Kaam was born in The Hague, The Netherlands, on April 19 1920. He died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA, on November 17 2007. As a young man he was ordained a Catholic priest in the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Spiritans). During the Second Wrold War, he was involved in the Dutch resistance. Associating closley in the resistance with many different types of people, some believers some not, some Catholics some not, van Kaam came to see the importance of what he was later to call the universal human dimension. The foundational question that can be seen in his pioneering academic career was most simply, What does it mean to be a human being?

After he had completed his PhD - he studied under Carl Rogers and Erik Erikson in the 1950s - he lectured in psychology at the Spiritan's Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Dissatisfied with the limits and biases of psychology, with the help of three other academics, he established the Institute of Man in 1963.The Institute offered a three year Masters program where the focus was the universal human dimension. That Insitute, under the guidance of Adrian van Kaam and his close collaborator, Dr Susan Muto, developed into the Institute of Formative Spirituality in the 1970s. Adrian had a serious heart attack in 1980, but was able to recover and continue his pioneering research for another fifteen years.

It was part of van Kaam's genius to develop a method of integrating the various disciplines that examined human formation. The method was phenoenological, grounding all research in actual human experience. "What do you see and hear there?" might express the key to his methodology. As far as his content goes, van Kaam placed what he called "originality" at the centre. The English word "originality" comes from the Latin word orire, meaning "to arise". The formation of the truly human life is always a process of liberation and graced emergence. Life is always a be-coming in which the truth of who and what I am is set free in the stuff of my days - or it is not. My energies must go towards facilitiation and my identity comes as grace, pure gift.

Some brief examples of Adrian van Kaam's writings follow.

Life is a Mystery to be Lived

"Whereas the first thing to know in a technical crisis is exact information about the instrument concerned, the first thing to know in the problems of life is that we do not know. Life is a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved. Before this mystery we stand in awe and surrender. We do not impose our petty categories on the mystery of life; we do not force life into our narrow prejudices; we do not complain that life is too vastfor us; we know that life escapes our grasp. We bow in reverence to the mystery of Being; we accept humbly the fact that we cannot understand where life is leading us; we learn the virtue of patience in the school of the adventure of living.

"For we are like sailors on a ship of unknown destination on an uncharted sea. Very gradually we learn the crucial lesson of existence that we do not ask what life has to give us, but rather respond to what life asks from us. Then the question is no longer what can I get out of life, but rather what can life get out of me.

"This truth assumes infinitely deeper dimensions in religious existence. For religious individuals, the mystery oflife is rooted in the mystery of Divine Providence. Faith in God's project makes it less difficult for religious individuals to live with the darkness and uncertainty that are inherent in every human project. They know that behind the clouds of their own ignorance is the radiant sun of God's presence. This certainty gives to authentic religious existence an air of freedom and carefree relaxation.

"To be carefree is not to be careless. To be carefree is to be careful in a serene and evenminded way. The freedom of the children of God gives a specific style to human existence, characterised by the peace of heart typical of the authentic believer. This peace is not based on a denial of the darkness and uncertainty of their project of life. Religious existence knows this darkness as well as or even better than non-religious existence. Religious individuals, however, have learned how to live with this uncertainty in the light of their faith that everything - even darkness - has a divine meaning, a holy purpose, a mysterious design. Therefore, the first premise in the art of living is to be able to live with one's problems, not to see them as problems to be solved, but as mysteries to be lived.

"As long as we are anxious, agitated, perturbed about our problems, we prove that we have not yet learned the fundamentals of the art of religious living. Indeed, each time we attempt to force a solution of our difficulties in a quick, easy way we refuse to enter the school of life. This is especially true of the problems of sin and imperfection. Our personal inclinations to certain types of sin and imperfection will be with us as long as we live. They are rooted in our unique nature and in the dark recesses of our past.

"To be sure, we must try to overcome them in the current of our existence, but we must also humbly accept the fact that possibly we shall never be wholly rid of them in spite of our efforts. It may be that we must live with a certain imperfection to the end of our life; that we must patiently try to cope with it in countless ways while never succeeding in eliminating it. A certain sin may persecute us until our last breath, humiliate us in the eyes of others, escape our understanding, and fill our eyes with tears. This fact we must accept.

"The Lord will never ask how successful we were in overcoming a particular vice, sin, or imperfection. He will ask us, 'Did you humbly and patiently accept this mystery of iniquity in your life? How did you deal with it? Did you learn from it to be patient and humble? Did it teach you to trust not your own ability but My love? Did it enable you to understand better the mystery of iniquity in the lives of others? Did it give you the most typical characteristic of truly religious individuals--that they never judge or condemn the sin and imperfection of others?'

"Religious individuals know from their own lives that the demon of evil can be stronger than them even in spite of their best attempts; they know that it is the patience, humility, and charity learned from this experience that count. Success and failure are accidental. The joy of Christians is never based on their personal religious successes but on the knowledge that their Redeemer lives. Christians are
those who are constantly aware of their need of salvation. Acceptance of the mystery of iniquity in our project of existence is a school of mildness, mercy, forgiveness, and loving understanding of our neighbor.

"Our existential project is called authentic to the degree that it is in harmony with our life situation. Our project is unauthentic when it is not in harmony with reality as it manifests itself in our daily life. Wholesome individuals steadily grow in insight into their individuality within their own situation, and they accept their personal lives with all its possible and actual modes of existence.

"This increasing self-understanding is accompanied by acceptance of their total life situations. For we cannot separate our lives from the situations in which they are lived. We cannot split our self-development from the development of our situations. The moment we attempt to do so, we become unrealistic and unauthentic. At such a time, we begin to dream about a fictitious situation, an ideal state in which it would be possible for us to be perfect. In the meantime we neglect our only possible real growth, namely, growth within the concrete situation here and now. In such a case we enter into an "if only" existence. People who are caught in the throes of this unauthentic project of life escape theburden of true self-realization by the "if only" attitude. If only my environment were different; if only I had a more cooperative wife, husband, or superior; if only I were given a different assignment; if only the people around me were more understanding and refined; if only my health were better, my face more handsome, my imperfections more malleable, then everything would be different, then I would be a marvelous person, then I would live a rich and useful life.

"It is clear that the 'if only' attitude lifts people out of reality, makes it impossible for them to live real lives, to actualize themselves in a concrete sense. They are the eternally absent people, the professional dreamers who never wake up. Their project of existence becomes increasingly fantastic, a castle in the air. The more these people live in their castles, the more useless they become in the everyday situation. They become expert at complaining because they cannot understand that imperfect life differs from their castle. They are sure that they cannot be at fault, for if life were only like their dream, then they would be perfect. It is not they who are mistaken, but all the others who have ruined their castle. Those people of the 'if only' existence may travel from house to house, from task to task, from assignment to assignment in a fruitless search for paradise lost. They will never find it, and as a result they will never find themselves, for we can only discover what we are in the real situation in which we are.

[Adrian van Kaam, Religion and Personality, Image Books, 1964, 24-6. This was a ground-breaking book, first published in 1964. It endeavoured to promote a conversation between the various disciplines that focus on human formation - 'secular' as well as 'religious', 'academic' as well as 'non-academic'. Van Kaam was later to carry through with the development of this dialogical and integrative line of thinking when he developed what he called "formative spirituality" or "formation science".]


 Existential Crisis

"The main themes of an existential psychology of human development are the changes, conflicts, and crises that mark our self-emergence. One basic meaning underlies them: the recurring death and rebirth of personality, a death which prophesies resurrection on a higher level of existence. Not every psychological death, to be sure, leads to rebirth. There are ways of dying which do not lead to a renewal of life; rather, they impede human unfolding. At certain moments of my life I am faced with a crisis which I can solve only by dying to former modes of living. I have no choice: I must decide either to die authentically to my past or to die inauthentically in a fixation on a past way of life which will fossilize my existence. Therefore, an existential death wish permeated by the desire for self-emergence in a new way, is crucial in my life.

"Let me observe somewhat closer the phenomenon of death and rebirth. As a human being, I am both "potentiality" and "emergence"; these are the two poles between which life unfolds itself. Human potentiality is not something inert. On the contrary, I experience my potentiality as a dynamic tendency toward self-emergence. I am not only what I actually am; I am also a constant movement towards self-emergence. As soon as a new potentiality for human presence announces itself in my existence, I experience a powerful motive to live in this new way. For example, if my association with my fellow human beings has been one of mere functional interaction, I may experience an invitation to die to my functional existence and to live as a generous person. Up until now, my world has been structured as a field of ealization of utilitarian goals. But the emergence of this new possibility may change my world into a field of conflict between the old familiar way and the invitation to develop a new mode of presence which will radically change my life. When I affirm such a new potentiality, the meaning of my world becomes restructured in terms of the new life to which I am born.

"My personality cannot be regarded, therefore, as an object that is completed. I am "becoming," I am potentiality for dying to my life at any moment and for being born to what I am not yet. It is my essence not to be closed in upon myself like a lifeless chair. Neither am I subjected to only the rules of biological and psycho-biological development as plants and animals are. I am a restless, spontaneous, creative movement towards new modes of presence to this world. I experience myself as incomplete, unfinished, as longing to be. In short, the fact that I am a human being implies that I can be reborn.

"When I observe closely my own experience of psychological death and rebirth, I become aware of ynamic shifts in experience which precede, accompany and follow this event. I experience the mergence of a potentiality for a more meaningful life, first of all, as dissatisfaction with my past. Meanwhile, a estless anticipation of a new life springs up within me. Such emotional discontent may invade me over and over again, for my fullness is at the same time emptiness; my satisfaction is clouded by displeasure; my security is encumbered by uncertainty. No matter what success I experience, my contentment is never final; I carry with me always a secret desire to die to the old person and rise to the new. aradoxically, my existential death wish will never die, for hidden in my life is the certainty that no mode of existence can ever fulfill me completely. Whether I fulfill myself as thinker, artist, scientist, or lover, I am never complete; I am always on the frontier of dissatisfaction with my past; my 'yes' to what I am at present is never ultimate."

[Originally published in South African Journal of Pedagogy, 1969, 3:1, 63-4 (63-74). Later published in Adrian van Kaam, Foundations for Personality Study, Dimension Books, 1982, 357-371.]

Transcendent Self-presence

"While developing a theory of man's spiritual unfolding, I discovered the importance of a right balance between two forms of reflection, one being introspective, the other transcendent. Let us say I suddenly lost a dear person; a husband, wife, parent, friend passed away. I feel not only immensely sad but guilty. I feel ashamed about the times I could have been more pleasant for the deceased but was not. I reproach myself for visits I neglected, letters I did not write, kind words that were never spoken. I keep asking myself why I did not do what could have been done easily, why I failed this dear person so badly during his life. I try to recall all of the lost opportunities in which I could have been of help and I was not. I ask myself over and over again how I could nave been so negligent. I feel compelled to explore my past. Was it perhaps the same when I was a younger person? Does my lack of interest in others go back to things that happened at home when I was a little child? Am I as thoughtless with my other friends who are still alive? How can I as fast as possible remedy my lack of concern, my absorption in myself? I begin frantically to analyze every detail of my dealings with others.

"This whole process could be described as one of introspective reflection, of looking anxiously into myself, of being present to myself in an aggressive attempt to figure everything out, to dig up the roots of my failure, to trace it back to the past, to analyze piecemeal my thoughts, feelings,
deeds, and expressions.

"I can also be present to myself, my guilt and failure in a different way. Yes, my friend passed away. I feel guilt and shame about the many times I failed him. I put myself totally before the Divine Majesty with my sadness, guilt, shame, and failure. My main attention is not directed owards my feelings but toward the Divine Presence. I adore His Holy Will that took my friend. Prayerfully I renew my faith that His love lets all things work out for the best. My failure may have helped my friend to become aware of the limitations of friendship in this passing world. I humble myself before God who grants me the purifying awareness of how sinful and self‑centered I really am. My inner humiliation, accepted in peaceful surrender, creates more room in me to be filled with the Eternal Presence. I renew my faith in His redemptive love. With a contrite heart, I profess to Him my guilt, put myself in His hands, experience His constant mercy. I rekindle my hope that His will make everything right in the end, that He will give my friend in eternity what I could never give him during his life. I grow in a new love for God and people, feeling more at home than ever with a suffering and redeemed humanity whose guilt, failure, and need for salvation I compassionately share. Relaxed and peaceful, I allow now--against the background of eternal mercy--my failures of past and present to emerge in my awareness. In light of His compassionate love, I ponder quietly possible ways to gradually improve my life insofar as it pleases Him to give me the grace to better my predicament. This second gentle way of self-presence, I call transcendent reflection.

"Introspective reflection tends to be analytical and aggressive; transcendent reflection tends to be integrated and gentle. In introspective reflection, we isolate the 'reflected upon,' such as guilt and shame, from the larger backdrop of reality. We not only cut the 'reflected upon' off from the larger whole to which it pertains; we also cut it up in its inner wholeness. In our first example, we did not put our failure in the perspective of God's all encompassing providence and forgiveness; we engaged in a fragmenting
analysis of every aspect of our feeling and failure.

"Introspective reflection implies a focusing process in which the background is either blurred or lost. Both inwardly and outwardly, it is divided. It purposely loses sight of the totality and goes at its object aggressively. How aggressively we tried in our first example to force insight by digging up all we could recall of the past. This aggressiveness of thought is beneficial in that it helps to make us more strict and precise. While this approach is excellent for our necessary analytical pursuits, it is destructive for any kind of transcendent reflection that underlies our awareness of spiritual at‑oneness. In our first example, we were isolated in our guilt and shame about the negligence of our friend during his life; we felt cut off from God and man.

"What I term transcendent reflection is the opposite of introspective. In it, we may reflect upon ourselves, others, and nature to become one with a Divine Source, mysteriously united in an Eternal Origin. We reflect meditatively upon the whole of creation, its enormity and simplicity, out of which we all emerge. In our second example, we never left the all pervading presence of the merciful God, His loving and all encompassing Providence and His unfolding creation; the ultimate meaning of our shame, guilt, and failure was related to this Divine Origin from whom we all emerge.

"This reflection is not divisive but unitive. It is transcendent. It makes whole; it attunes us to a mysterious totality that already is; it is a healing reflection. Far from being dissective and aggressive, it is meditative and gentle, a gentle preservation of all things as given and as tenderly held in the splendor of a Divine Presence. It is a source of spiritual living. Whenever we reflect upon ourselves, upon our own inner life meditatively, I call such reflection transcendent self-presence."

[Adrian van Kaam, In Search ofSpiritual Identity, Dimension Books, 1979 - the opening paragraphs of Chapter 7, titled "Introspection and Transcendent Self Presence".]

For more biographical information on this remarkable man - click here.

For more on Adrian van Kaam's life project developing "formation sicence" - click here