HUMAN NATURE: A DEVELOPMENTAL PERSPECTIVE
The universality of existential concerns is evident in children as well as adults. May (1992) was the first to propose an existential developmental model moving from a naive stage of innocence, to adolescent rebellion and struggle, to conventional ascribing to tradition, and then finally moving beyond the ego and self-actualizing. Neither discrete nor linear, these "stages" are evident in many of May's (1992) myths; for instance, May used them to exemplify the stages of female development through myths such as "Briar Rose" (p. 194). Existential issues occur across developmental stages. People grow as they become more mindful and reflective of their present condition (Claessens, 2009), regardless of the developmental time frame. Although existentialists do not propose discrete stages, finding meaning has developmental markers and implications.
Not all people experience the same transitional challenges at the same times in their lives, but all people do experience life transitions within the context of their social group and culture.
The existential practitioner must be able to understand each client's unique life context in order to assess the nature and impact of these transitions. (Lantz & Walsh, 2007, p. 82)
Addressing core existential concerns helps to promote health and further development. Existential counseling focuses on the possibilities that are available and presses the client and counselor to become more alive, aware, and sensitive while coming to terms with the realities of mortality and aloneness. The anxiety produced by awareness of nonexistence is overwhelming to all, especially children. Most children cope with death by denying it. Parents and adults, wanting to protect their children, foster denial in the first phase of life by avoidance and hesitant confrontation. Maunder and Hunter (2004) indicated that it is in one's initial attachments as a child that one develops an understanding of oneself and reality. Through Lev's (2007) book, The Meaning of Life: A Child's Book of Existential Psychology, it is clear that existentialism can be applied to and useful for young people. Children, as with adults, may find meaning in life through spirituality (Walters, 2008) or through continually evolving questions about who they are. It is their struggle to be and to live in a world of relationships and death that illustrates that children are not immune from the struggle to be human.
By the time of adolescence, however, death can no longer be denied. More important, the multiple developmental changes and pressures on teenagers can be magnified by isolation and depression (Lantz & Walsh, 2007). As adolescents struggle to find meaning, suicide can become a plausible response, which explains the rise in suicidal attempts and suicidal ideation during this period (Afifi, Cox, & Katz, 2007).
Despite the contemporary focus on superficial, commercial fulfillment, many people still search for existential meaning as they reach critical developmental stages. Weaver (2009) suggested that midlife, with all its complexities and transitions, is a time for meeting existential issues through finding meaning, making peace with personal expectations, and developing an integrated self. In a study of older adults, Reker (2008) found that the need to include existential variables was seen as key to understanding and measuring assessment of the total person. Interventions to help older adults gain meaning (Lantz & Walsh, 2007) have been important at the last stages of life. Successful suicides in older adults are, contrary to current beliefs, not focused on escaping physical pain but rather reflect psychological and relational issues (Gudmannsdottir & Halldorsdottir, 2009).
This culture sees life as collecting experiences. But, aging is an emptying out and beginning to experience the moment, what's happening right now. In our culture, we value old people who act young. We don't value old people for acting old, for their wisdom. For them to hear their own wisdom, they have to experience the quiet center of themselves. That's one of the ways the stroke was a blessing – it increased my silence. (Dass, 2000, p. 12)
As individuals age, existential struggles and angst are a normal part of the process of understanding who they are.
Gaining understanding about the meaning of life and taking responsibility for one's life serve to influence and inspire one's development. The process of development, whether spiritual or secular, is characterized by anxiety, for which death is the primary cause (Barnett, 2009; Yalom, 2009). Existential concerns permeate human existence, and the existential relationship is a vehicle to promote developmental growth (Ventimiglia, 2008). By facing one's mortality in the various stages of one's existence, one can more fully live. Counselors with a personal and relational awareness of what it means to be can help a person learn how to make peace with dying.