Marcel As Counselor:

Four Ideas Toward Other-Centered Repentance

By Liam J. Atchison

Copyright © 1995 Mars Hill Review 2 May 1995 · Issue No. 2: pgs 41-52.

Several years ago a middle-aged graduate student came to my office for the purpose of getting to know me. He had initiated the meeting because he had sensed we had much in common after he heard one of my lectures on the New Testament. And, not surprisingly, our conversation flowed pleasantly as we sipped coffee and shared the significant events in our lives that had shaped who we were in that moment.

As often happens in such frank and personal conversations, we came to the subject of our families and upbringing. Up to this point in our conversation, this student had struck me as affable and enjoyable. But when the topic of his relationship with his father came up, his face betrayed an inward pain and anger.

"I'm determined to never be like my father," he said quite calmly. I felt awkward as I asked a series of painfully obvious questions about his father. This yielded a fairly normal, mundane portrait of a man who was faithful to his wife and family yet unable to please his talented and intelligent wife. He seemed to be a hard worker, not overtly abusive, not ambitious--in short, a typically boring but not unusual man.

Yet this seemingly impotent man apparently had tremendous power in the life of his son. Several years before, the student's wife had threatened to leave him on the grounds that he was "dead" just like his father. Several years of marriage counseling followed with the result that dad's influence was isolated as the cause of the younger man's problems. Soon the son was analyzing his father under a microscope as if he were some malignant bacteria (at least, that is the way the student recalled it). From that point on, dad was duly bashed as a bad example. The student concluded that his life was better now because he had this helpful gnosis about his father. And he was pursuing graduate studies in counseling because he wanted to have better relationships and better self-understanding--both improvements that represented a movement away from his father's negative and ultimately selfish influence.

I asked the student to offer some snippets of his new life that would give evidence he was becoming more "alive." He offered three examples: First, he had confronted his father with how he had been crippled by the older man's example of "deadness." Not surprisingly, the father had been bewildered by his son's rebuke. He had no categories with which to evaluate his parenting performance corresponding to his son's counseling jargon. In fact, he had always been commended as a "good family man" before this confrontation. After the confrontation, the father-son relationship became icy--and this seemed to be a source of pride for the son.

Second, this student claimed he was "working out his repentance" by adopting habits considered abhorrent to his "puritanical" upbringing. He was pleased to report that he now swore freely and drank alcohol regularly (though he was never drunk). Third, his Christian life had changed in that he had nothing to do with those he termed "churchy legalists," and he had dropped out of all church ministry because his dutiful participation was only out of guilt anyway. He also loved the fact that at graduate school he was far removed from his home area and could now "sleep in" on Sunday mornings.

A Narcissistic Repentance

The coffee was cold in our cups when I decided that his bubble should be burst. "How long," I asked, "have you confused repentance with this cynical narcissism?" I was disturbed by this student's account of where his disrupted life had taken him. I did not advocate the virtues of what he termed the puritanical, nor did I question his dissatisfaction with the narrow moralism that kept his father's world small. Rather, I was simply struggling to reconcile his newfound freedom with several biblical passages (passages this student undoubtedly would claim to believe) that present the Christian life as one of self-abandonment and service to others. I thought particularly of how Eugene Peterson had translated Jesus' words to the disciples in The Message (1993):

You have observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It's not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to become great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served--and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage. (Matthew 20:25-28)

What Peterson renders as "a little power goes to their heads" is an issue more universal in its significance than in its application merely to Gentile despots. I saw that the student sitting amicably before me had the power of insight gone to his head. This insight--or knowledge as gnosis--had not had the effect of making him the embodiment of a disciple of Christ, and thus a servant of others. Rather, it seemed to make him simply determined to be honest about life: like Hamlet, true to himself--but in reality, hardly true to others. A telling indication: His changes for the better were all described in reference to himself. Hope was present, but it was realized within himself instead of in Christ.

The narcissism that seems present in many of those who have received counseling is frequently a source of frustration for pastors and missions boards. Besides often being made to feel like scapegoats themselves, spiritual leaders sometimes suspect that counseling hinders the other-centered mission of the church. Some even have concluded that counseling is ultimately destructive to the process of sanctification because it necessarily leads one to a preoccupation with self rather than to the orthodox Christian conception of dying to self.

These perceptions are particularly distressing to me because I love the church, and because I have personally benefited from Christian counseling. In fact, counseling has meant so much to me that I presently direct a graduate program that is filling the world with Christian counselors--a difficult thing to do if one does not believe in the "product." But more to the point: Does counseling hinder other-centeredness? Can we counsel so as not to lead to self-centeredness?

Clues from Philosophy

The problem of narcissism in those who receive counseling does not have an easy solution. Yet I believe there is an antecedent to this dilemma in twentieth century philosophy that might be profitable to explore. Earlier in this century, a French philosopher named Gabriel Marcel was concerned about a trend he saw in existential philosophy, a school reaching its zenith of popularity in Europe at the time. Marcel was troubled by the emphasis on anxiety among many existentialists. Some influential philosophers including Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre had developed the notion of anxiety (sometimes translated from the German angst as "dread" or "anguish") chiefly from nineteenth-century Danish philosopher SÝren Kierkegaard. These philosophers claimed that anxiety was central to an understanding of people. Heidegger believed we feel anxiety in our lives, but we ultimately have no idea what makes us anxious. The source of anxiety cannot be identified. Though the common man thinks anxiety a bad thing, Heidegger said it actually is positive because it calls each of us to face our responsibilities in life and thus opens the way for "authentic existence." Kierkegaard had a slightly different view of anxiety. He saw it as a sense of dizziness we experience when we are confronted with freedom, or the vast range of options from which we can choose, and for which we are held responsible. Sartre held the definitions of both Heidegger and Kierkegaard. And of the three, Sartre's has had the greatest influence.

Marcel's struggle with this emphasis on anxiety increased as he saw students who embraced existential philosophy become overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of life. Marcel believed it was evident that life had meaning based on the existence of others. Christian theology accentuates this primordial truth by teaching the importance of serving others. Marcel's observation of the morbid self-introspection resulting from anxiety led him to conclude that existentialists who based their thinking on anxiety had entered a blind alley. Rather than being a good thing, Marcel wrote in his Problematic Man , "anxiety is an evil, since, in the last analysis, it is only occupied with itself."{1} In short, a person in a state of anxiety is caught up in himself or herself. And people in anxiety cannot give themselves unselfishly to others; indeed, it is as if there is no "other."

As I consider the contemporary Christian community, it seems we have unwittingly bought into a Sartrean view of anxiety. We protest that we do not live in denial as the fundamentalists of a previous generation did. We insist on bringing our tensions to a crisis point, in much the way that the graduate student confronted his father. And more than valuing our doubts, we exalt them, just as Heidegger valued anxiety because he believed it forces people to face themselves and their limitations honestly.

To be sure, Christian counseling has helped us to become honest about ourselves; but critics rightly charge that at the same time it has produced a flock of cynics and narcissists. That is why I suggest we allow Gabriel Marcel to counsel us. Marcel said we are going down the wrong track if we have become overly preoccupied with ourselves. Instead of focusing on anxiety, he said we should occupy our concerns with something called availability. According to Marcel, availability to God and to others is the desired result of being open about our lives. This idea of availability sounds very similar to what we might conclude from the Matthew 20 passage we considered earlier: Whoever would be great must become a servant. Philosopher John MacQuarrie said of Marcel's idea of availability, "there are clear echoes of New Testament teaching in these notions."{2}

Marcel as Counselor: Four Big Ideas

Marcel had four big ideas that address our narcissism as illusion and remind us of our call to service:

1. I become aware of myself as a person only in relationship to others;
2. I must pop the bubble of the illusion that I am the center of the universe;
3. What makes me a person is not this illusion that I am the center of the universe, but rather, two things: first, I behave as one who assumes responsibility for his or her actions, and second, I believe in the existence of others and permit this belief to influence my conduct; and
4. We were meant to be opposed to this illusion in full personhood--available.

Let's further explore Marcel's thoughts.

1. I become aware of myself as a person only in relationship to others.

Marcel contends that whenever I speak, think, or act in reference to myself, I cannot do so without at least an implied reference to others. A child who points out a personal accomplishment to her mother draws attention to herself yet also to her mother as the source of feedback. Likewise, an adult who withdraws into himself as a loner removes himself from others; his conscious choice to cut himself off from relationships and to maintain distance is always done with reference to others. Just as the growing child becomes aware of her existence in reference to her mother's friendship and praise, so the hermit identifies himself as a loner based on his distance from other people. According to Marcel, we are conscious of ourselves as persons only because we are in relationship to others.

If this is true, then pure individualism is only an illusion. I realize this last statement is nothing if not abstract, and Marcel hated abstract statements. He would insist that we demonstrate this with a concrete example. So let's accommodate him with one.

The student I talked about in the beginning of this article was angry with his father because the elder man withheld himself from his children as they were growing up. This father was, in short, a cold and lifeless man. He acted out his lifelessness for his own benefit, to keep others at a distance. Since he was a man like many others I have known, I doubt he ever seriously considered how his flaccid approach to life affected anyone other than himself. He probably would be puzzled if we suggested that his actions were actually harmful to others. And, of course, this man would be deceived if he thought he could live his life without affecting others.

This concrete example surely suggests that it is sheer folly to think I can live my life independently of others. Even if I should declare that I want to withdraw from all others, I would merely be saying that I will henceforth live my life in a new relationship to others--for I would still be related to others, no matter how distant from them I would become. Even if I were to fly alone to the most remote corner of the world to live there for the rest of my life, I could never conceive of my existence apart from others. Indeed, the worst misery of such a hermit existence would be in my attempt to escape the reality of who I am, for I am a relational being. Marcel reminds us that each of us can say, "there is no I without you." Whenever I make any decisions about how to change a relationship, I merely slide along a continuum. It is when I acknowledge that I need relationships with others that I slide more toward sociability.

Simply put, I am forced to wrestle with the fact that there are others. Marcel suggests that we have all wrestled with this fact and have usually been deceived. Our deception lies in our continued childish egocentricity. When we were children, we believed that our parents existed for us. After all, when we cried our diapers were changed or we were fed. Before we were instructed by science, we looked at the sun and stars and concluded that the universe revolved around us. Today, we may laugh out of nostalgia at the absurdity that we ever harbored such thoughts. But all of us to some extent are still childishly egocentric. We arrogantly continue to believe and behave as if we possess definite unalienable privileges that in effect place us at the center of our own universe.

2. I must pop the bubble of the illusion that I am the center of the universe.

Every second of every day, lonely people created in the image of God wrap up their worlds into words and offer them to others. These offerings are sacred and a ministration. They offer us the opportunity to escape the illusion that we are islands, alone. The words of others are strong ropes thrown over the walls we have erected to protect the sad, microscopic worlds we mistakenly think belong to us. How do we miss these lifelines? We lack genuine curiosity about others. God said, "It is not good for man to be alone," and we spend our lives eschewing aloneness--yet arrange our lives in such a way that our every thought or action serves ourselves.

That we are the center of our universe is a narcissistic illusion. Marcel says we must recognize folly in tightly grasping the best parts of ourselves as if we possess them. In fact, all our virtues are gifts of which we are stewards who will one day be held to account. If everything good about me is a gift, then God has bestowed it upon me for the purpose of being used. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that their spiritual gifts were to be used for the edification of the body of believers; indeed, the nature of all gifts, whether technically spiritual or not, is that they are useful to us only on behalf of others.

This may not seem true at first glance. But once again, let's turn to a mundane example: A wealthy man purchases a very old and extremely valuable baseball trading card of Ty Cobb and gives it to an aristocratic friend who loves baseball but "has everything." The friend receives the gift with graciousness and puts it away in a safe-deposit box. How, you ask, can this hidden gift be valuable or useful only in that it is used on behalf of others? After all, the card is removed from access to anyone except the owner.

I contend that the giver gives the gift because he believes the one who receives it will use it well, and ultimately that means on behalf of others. One way to see this is in the fact that the gift will continue to exist when the owner is gone. In this way his heirs, or a museum, or historians will benefit from his act of preservation. Likewise, if rather than preserving the card the new owner were to set it on fire, others would curse his selfishness because the treasure does not strictly belong to him. You see, he holds this treasure as a sacred trust on behalf of a culture that baseball has helped to shape. And the steward of the gift is faithful if he preserves or employs the gift for the benefit of others.

So it is with all good things we have been given--our abilities, virtues, compassion, service, and experiences, to name a few. These virtues do not strictly belong to us. We have no egocentric right to withhold our gifts, indeed ourselves, from others. Of course, this is not only a Marcellian theme; it is biblical. Everything God has given us is a gift to be used on behalf of others, whether in worship to God or in assisting someone who needs our help. God has given us the gift of existence, which cannot be defined apart from others. To Marcel the implication is clear: We do not exist for ourselves; we exist for others. There are ontological reasons why the Lord says, "Love the Lord your God...and love your neighbor as yourself." This is certainly divine revelation, but it is also the only faithful response to the reality of our existence.

3. What makes me a person is not this illusion that I am the center of the universe, but, rather, two things: first, I behave as one who assumes responsibility for his or her actions; and second, I believe in the existence of others and permit this belief to influence my conduct.

According to Marcel, assuming responsibility is the commitment to no longer live in a dream world of our own making. I am reminded of a waiter who made several errors while waiting on my family and me recently. One salad had the wrong dressing, a potato was forgotten from an order, and a beverage did not appear until the meal was nearly over. Each time these omissions were pointed out, our waiter apologized and said the cook was at fault in each instance. Each time he transferred the blame to a nameless and faceless cook in the kitchen.

Though I never saw the cook, I did observe our own waiter and noted that he was quite disorganized and inefficient. He seemed continually to be the victim of the cook in a way that other waitpersons in the restaurant were not. Other happy diners around us seemed to be receiving their potatoes and coffee in a timely and efficient manner. (That is, they got them if our waiter was not their waiter.) It didn't begin to take long for me to realize that this waiter had invited my family and me to enter his dream world. He could not take responsibility for his own incompetence, so he attempted to cloak his personhood and asked us to join in the farce.

This example is obvious, but no less dreamlike is the world of my own making: I too am continually in the process of explaining my actions in an effort to influence others to accept the picture of me that I want them to have. For example, I want people to believe that I am a wise and benevolent father to my children. But the truth is that parenting confuses me even more than the deep existential questions of life posed by my students. In reality, if my children turn out well, it will be a testimony to the grace of God rather than to my wisdom. Nevertheless, when I receive a compliment for my parenting skills based on the behavior of my children, I accept it with my most well-rehearsed wise and knowing look. In this way, others are not allowed to get to know me as the real person, who is without a clue in this business of parenting. I only invite others to a dream world where I am blameless.

To offer the real person to others, I must assume responsibility for my acts by being honest. However, there is more to being real than merely being honest. I must also believe that others exist completely independent of my need of them, and then allow this belief to influence my conduct toward them. Let me offer an example.

A missionary friend told me how he felt drawn to missions when he saw huge masses of urban people during a visit to China. He realized that these were real people who had no connection with him in any way. Rather than being repelled by the uncomfortable prospect of associating with people whose lifestyles were different, he felt a deep sense of debt to them to impart a knowledge of God that he had and that they needed. This belief was a wonderful motivation for this man to become a missionary to east Asia. He believed that others existed independently of him, and he acted upon that belief.

This missionary enjoyed a great privilege that most of us in western society never experience. Yet Marcel suggests that most of us are not awakened toward others in this way. He says that rather than coming to grips with the reality of the existence of others, we move on the outskirts of reality like sleepwalkers. Because we live our lives "safely" without many challenges to our narcissistic perspectives, we seem to float in a world of unreality where we cannot conceive of others apart from our interests.

4. Opposed to this illusion is what we were meant to be in full personhood: available.

Marcel says that each of us has a vocation in the true sense of the word--that is, a calling. This is not a calling to a particular career, whether as a pastor, undertaker, typist, or jockey. Nor is it a calling to a spiritual office. To this philosopher, all have the same calling. If our gifts are for the benefit of others, then our calling is to realize that for which we were created--to give of ourselves to others. Marcel calls this aptitude disponibilitiť, or, availability. The term appears frequently throughout the philosopher's writings, and he gives his readers many varied definitions of it. Essentially, availability is readiness to respond to any legitimate claim made upon one by another. It is most clearly seen when a person takes an unanticipated circumstance and treats it as an opportunity for other-centeredness. We see this in the boy-judge Samuel when he responds to the voice of God in the night. Perhaps it is seen even in Jacob, who labors for seven additional years for the love of Rachel. We definitely see availability in Abraham when God calls upon him to sacrifice his only son.

The opposite of the available person is the person who is engaged or "cluttered" with himself or herself. Availability, on the other hand, is receptivity to the "abundance of the world," and is essential if we are to subdue the world. Paul demonstrated this characteristic on Mars Hill. On behalf of his Athenian listeners, he dealt thoughtfully with an inscription that appeared on a pagan altar. Indeed, a pagan maxim in a world of false gods became for Paul an opportunity to open meaningful discussion about the true God. Paul readily abandoned himself to the challenging circumstance he encountered and thus was able to transform a disappointing or threatening circumstance into a wonderful opportunity for redemption.

Marcel notes that this aptitude has not been developed in us if we have difficulty admiring others. Admiration demonstrates a receptivity to the world's abundance--it is constructive and redemptive--while narcissism destroys not merely ourselves but others with us. The jealous master-at-arms in Herman Melville's Billy Budd could not bring himself to admire the Handsome Sailor and so destroyed himself and Billy in the process.

How often have we been so obsessed by our personal plans that we treat the unexpected intrusions of others as troublesome? A baseball star refuses to sign an autograph for a boy who will one day be President of the United States. A pregnant cancer patient chooses to abort the person who one day will find a cure for cancer. A father won't read the poetry written by his son and recognize its brilliance. We all evidence thoughtlessness in daily living because we are caught up in ourselves and think of others only insofar as they intersect with us. Marcel contends that we must consecrate ourselves to a cause greater than ourselves: We must view others as others, for the good of others. To better understand this, we must realize that others have claims upon us. We often are willing to understand how God has claim upon us, but we fear his concrete claims upon us when they come in the form of a needy brother or sister.

The opposite of recognizing the claims of others upon us is to view others as objects of machinery. Even in counseling practice people become "clients" of whom we must discover "inner workings," as we would do with a watch. A new movement in counseling holds that like a doctor treating only symptoms the counselor should "heal" the presenting problem without ever attempting to delve into the deeper issue of sin. But one might just as well discuss the weather, because treating people like machines yields only a completely surface knowledge of them. Marcel calls this degrading--even sacrilegious--to those who are created in the image of God, because it amounts to a denial of their humanity, their existence as real subjects.

There is a very real danger in recognizing the claims of others. I often fear that when I become available others will exploit me, my time, my energy. Some of this fear is motivated by the misconception that I have something of my own, which I have the right to withhold from others. But my fear is also generated by the image I have of people who "live for others." Consider the pastor who ignores his family and ruins his health as he fulfills the demands of his congregation. Think of the woman who can never say no to others, whose life is a blur of frenetic activity, and whose health and family also suffer. Then consider the missionary who dies too young because she took a heroic risk, either being roasted by cannibals or succumbing to some dreaded fever in a god-forsaken place. This latter example may seem extreme, but similar images strike fear and hesitation into the hearts of many who would "abandon themselves to God."

Marcel says that a preoccupation with others, such as these subjects illustrate, is not necessarily availability. It may simply be posing.

The poseur who seems to be preoccupied with others is in reality entirely taken up with himself. Indeed, the person he is with only interests him in so far as he is likely to form a favorable picture of him which in turn he will receive back. The other person reflects him, returns to him this picture which he finds so enchanting.{3}

We must ask ourselves whether we are preoccupied with the effects our unselfishness has on others. A student sat in my office recently, incensed because I had assigned her to a practicum with a faculty member other than the one for which she had hoped. Her argument was that she had made tremendous sacrifice to study in our graduate program and had anticipated a better assignment. She further argued that she was noble in this display of anger because she was somehow being authentic about her feelings. A verse from Scripture kept rolling around in my head as I listened to her: "Let another man's lips praise you and not your own." She had hoped that her great sacrifice would result in favorable treatment.

Her seeming unselfishness was undoubtedly calculated to produce an effect. Yet the trumpeting of her own honesty about her feelings was nauseating. This was not other-centered authenticity; it was a self-centered claim on the one who had "victimized" her (me). What disturbed me most about the encounter, (which is enacted frequently in my office because our program has too many students to accommodate satisfactorily) is that the student believed she was responding in a healthy way, a way she claimed to have learned from me and her other professors.

And now, I must ask myself why I have related this story of a woman who herself asked for unusual consideration based upon her sacrifices. Did I demonstrate availability in telling it, or did I want to elicit sympathy for the daily plight of the academic director? If the former, I have presented an illustration to more clearly convince you that many people who think they are other-centered are merely narcissists. If it was the latter, then I am only posing as a writer who is actually concerned about the claims of others upon me. Such is the elusive nature of availability that I can only hope to occasionally demonstrate it well. It is not a second work of grace; it is a conscious choice I must make and for which I must take responsibility. It is a choice I must make as I believe in the existence of others apart from the intersection of my life with theirs.


I wondered if the friendly chat with the graduate student I mentioned up front had been spoiled. He asked me what I meant when I called him a cynical narcissist. I responded with some thoughts on availability that were sparked by my mentor-in-print, Gabriel Marcel, but that really came from a clear call to other-centeredness in the New Testament. I told the student that real repentance ought to lead us away from mere introspection and toward serving and giving to others. I said that I thought it was great he was facing life honestly, but that honesty was not the greatest virtue because we are not our own.

The student responded by saying that what I said was interesting--because he honestly had been feeling much more alone than ever. He laughed and said it was probably because he had offended so many people--including his wife. We continued to chat in a more comfortable, unhurried way. As he left my office he said he realized I was busy, and thanked me for taking time out for him.

I answered that spending time with him was the most important part of my job. He probably thought I was referring to my career--but I was really speaking about my calling.

{1} Cited by Bollnow, O. F. "Marcel's Concept of Availability," in Schlipp, P.A. and L.E. Hahn (Ed.) (1984) The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel. La Salla, IL: Open Court, (p. 179).

{2} J. MacQuarrie, (1984) Existentialism. New York: Penguin Books (p. 111).

{3}3 Gabriel Marcel, (1984) Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope. Translated by E. Craufurd. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co.