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William James on Crisis and Rebirth

William James distinguishes two kinds of people and two kinds of being.

Several years ago, living in China and without the distractions of the constantly available internet, I read William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience cover to cover while riding back and forth on the Beijing subway. Among the things that I learned then, and that I often keep in mind when reading more contemporary work in psychology and psychotherapy, is his distinction between two kinds of people: the once-born and the twice-born.

The once-born person is distinguished by her progress in development. Her interests and attachments grow gradually from one day to the next, expanding her circle of concern gradually. James writes of her "developing straight and natural, with no element of morbid compunction or crisis." The once-born person develops along a broadly linear trajectory, a process of growth by which one becomes a person in gradual upward steps and never goes backward.

Alex Green/Pexels
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

Not so for the twice-born, who must travel a more winding road to happiness. For her, "the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life." Rather than the steady accumulation of the once-born, for the twice-born, "renunciation and despair of it are our first step in the direction of the truth."

Two religions, two religious temperaments
James speaks of two kinds of religion and two kinds of religious temperament. But his distinction is more broadly in how we think about human growth. The story of the once-born is the story of growth we encounter in standard psychology textbooks. This is the story of orderly pyramids and "developmental milestones," of the gradual expansion of one's productive capacities and circle of concern.

This is not the way of the twice-born. If this way were available to them, they might well take it. But it is not. It is no accident that they are twice-born. The twice-born begin as "sick souls" who "must be twice-born to be happy." (Presumably, this introduces a sad third category: those who are called to be twice-born but who never get a chance to make it to their rebirth.)

The language of rebirth is so much a part of prominent religious traditions, perhaps especially in the United States, that it can be difficult to hear it in the broader spiritual register—one in which James uses it. Like much of Varieties, his discussion of the twice-born is a lesson in hearing this language anew, with an anthropological ear, so we can attend to what it means to those for whom it is meaningful, even if we do not share their belief. In short, James's discussion of the twice-born is an invitation for talk of "rebirth" to be made respectable for psychological discussions.

It is an invitation that has generally been declined. It is instructive, for example, to consider the reception of Erik Erikson's work on the "identity crisis," which in its initial formulation is profoundly influenced by James. Erikson, like James, identifies Martin Luther as a paragon of the twice-born. Luther was a troubled but outwardly successful monk and scholar when, well into his 30s, he challenged the pope, was excommunicated, and initiated the large-scale intellectual and political movement that would be subsequently called the Reformation. This is the power of a second birth.

How identity crises are understood
This is not how identity crises are generally understood now. Instead, we are told that "identity versus role confusion" is a conflict that everyone goes through, typically in adolescence. It is associated with trying new friends, clothes, music, and other experimentations—the various outward signs of teenage rebellion. This kind of identity crisis is a real phenomenon, and it is present in Erikson's work, but it differs in at least three ways from the identity crisis that Erikson sees in Luther.

First, the "age of onset" for a second birth can be much later, often occurring in one's 30s. Second, a second birth concerns relatively profound matters, such as one's place in the world and one's relationship with others and God. Third, a second birth is not for everyone. Many people, arguably most, progress by the kind of stepwise growth characteristic of the once-born. But some, like Luther, need a revolution in values and concerns.

In short, our understanding of the identity crisis has shifted from an existential reorientation that a certain group of people need to go through as adults to a stage of development almost everyone passes through as a teenager. There is room for both notions, and both aptly describe a real aspect of human development, but I think it is worth underscoring the first kind of identity crisis, as I have tried to do here. Contemporary psychology is enamored of growth and of taxonomies that apply to everyone; it can have difficulty attending to the lessons of which James and Erikson remind us: that not everyone is alike, that to progress, one must sometimes first regress, and that some people may need to be born more than once.


William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

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