Sound Familiar?

From Walker Percy’s 1957 article, “The Coming Crisis in Psychiatry”:

“We all know perfectly well that the man who lives out his life as a consumer, a sexual partner, an ‘other-directed’ executive; who avoids boredom and anxiety by consuming tons of newsprint, miles of movie film, years of TV time; that such a man has somehow betrayed his destiny as a human being.”

The crisis for psychiatry, Percy went on to say, was that in treating human yearning for significance as a symptom of some underlying mental illness, it actually contributed to man’s separation from creation, by alienating him from his purpose.

Not that the long line of therapists and psychologists in my own past haven’t been helpful. Love you, guys. But I wonder if Percy wasn’t on to something that modern America doesn’t want to hear, which is that the yearning can’t be entertained or purchased or medicated away.


  1. Steve Bogner

    You know, I wouldn’t want that yearning for significance to go away. Not at all. It’s a sort of magnetism that draws us closer to others, closer to meaningful work (for example), closer to God (in my opinion). When we try to satisfy that yearning in unhealthy ways, that’s where we go wrong and can get all messed up. The goal isn’t to make that yearning go away, but to nurture and direct it.

  2. aaron

    Percy is on to something!! You and he are both gifted writers and so can articulate in a much better way than me, but to validate what you’re saying, here’s a post from my blog, something I wrote more than a year ago. It’s an attempt at putting my finger on what Percy summed up in about 200 words:
    “When I look at the truly influential people in this world, they are the people that have taken on the insurmountable. They are the people that have refused to believe that they can only respond ?appropriately? to situations. They have not merely dealt with situations. They have changed them. They have been people described as crazy, difficult, bipolar, depressed, anxious, unrelenting, disillusioned, disenchanted, dreamers, and the like. So why does everyone keep telling me that these feelings are maladaptive and futile? I love the oscar-award-winning movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoos? Nest. In it, Jack Nicholson is the only sane person, and everyone is telling him, he should just, ?get with the program.? But if he actually did that, if he took their advice, he would just have been another crazy person, another inmate in the prison of mass-consciousness. Why won?t anyone support me in what seems to me to be a life worth living?
    I don?t want to just be someone who deals with problems in the medically accepted vernacular of the time. I don?t want to be someone whose tombstone says ?dealt with everything in the appropriate way.? I want to be someone who overcomes adversity to achieve something that affects humanity in a positive way for years to come. I?m not driven by the promise of wealth or fame. I am driven by what?s in my heart to do what?s right, and I feel like people, from doctors to coworkers, keep telling me to shut-up, quick asking questions and do what we do. If I did that, I would join the legions of people that have a significant amount of regret in their lives, both while they’re living and when they face the reality of death. That is my true fear- that I would live for no purpose and know it. I think most people know that truth when they die, and that?s why they?re afraid of death- they know that they should have done something- could of done something, and they didn?t. I?m not willing to do that. I don?t know how not to though.”

  3. dilys

    And it may be that the big preliminary task is to clear the underbrush from life until that yearning is revealed, out there in the open. Only then are we ready to begin. A point perhaps related to your WORLD essay on art and sanitized non-art, the latter hanging tinsel on the underbrush.

Comments are closed.