James Hollis: A Summons to a Deeper Life
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Dr. James Hollis. James is a graduate of Zurich’s Jung Institute, a licensed Jungian analyst practicing in Houston, Texas, and the author of 13 books including Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life and What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life. With Sounds True, James has written a new book called Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, where he offers an essential guidebook for anyone at a crossroads in life. In Living an Examined Life, he guides the leader through 21 areas for self-inquiry and growth, while inspiring a life of personal authority, integrity, and fulfillment.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, James and I spoke about how our deeper psyche summons us, and how we must listen when we get the summons. We also talked about how when we go through dark periods of devastation—what James calls “swamplands”—there is always a task hidden in the swamp. He also talked about why it’s particularly hard to grow up in our contemporary culture, a culture that infantilizes people, and how the two biggest obstacles to progressing on the path of human maturity are our fear and lethargy. Finally, we talked about meaning and why he believes it’s important to choose meaning over happiness. Here’s my conversation with James Hollis:
Jim, to begin our conversation, I’d love to track back to the mid-1970s, and you made a decision at that point to make a career change. I’d love to know what was happening in your life, and what inspired you to become a Jungian analyst at that point.
James Hollis: Well, I think several factors, most of them coming from within. I had sort of achieved all my goals I had a doctorate before I was 27, I had a wonderful family, I had a nice academic post, I was teaching classes I enjoyed, and everything was exactly the way it’s supposed to be. However, as we all know, the psyche often has its own perspective and its own point of view. I began to feel a sort of diminishing sense of purpose and satisfaction. Of course this was disconcerting, so usually when we find ourselves in a hole, we start doing more of what we did to get there in the first place. And I found essentially depression begetting, between ages 27 and 35, and by 35, I had my first hour of therapy.
I can assure you, at the time, I didn’t think of it as the beginning of a new journey or as the second half of life or anything like that. I thought it was a kind of admission of failure, that I hadn’t figured it out for myself. But I think often, in the face of substantial change, we have to have ourselves confront it in some way. Jung himself said once about his own midlife process, he said, “I kept discovering new things about myself, and it felt like a defeat.” You’d have to ask yourself, why would that be a defeat? Of course, it’s a defeat in the sense of which, we think from the standpoint of the ego that we’ve got things figured out, and we’re on the right track and we’re following the course we’re supposed to be taking, until the psyche weighs in.
So it was out of that encounter with the autonomy of the psyche that says, “You could be doing all the right things but we’re not going to cooperate with you. We’re withdrawing our approval and support,” that I began to realize, I’m going to have to dialog with something else here. That’s what led me into my first hour of therapy, and it led me ultimately to a substantial change.
TS: I want to ask you a big, broad question about your interest at that time in Jungian psychology. What was it that really captivated you such that you said, “I’m going to go through with this intensive education of becoming an analyst,” which is quite demanding. What captivated you about the approach of Jungian psychology?
JH: Well, that’s a good question. I think I had the interest from the beginning. That is to say, in college and graduate school, because Jung alone seemed to me to appreciate the role of the fine arts, the role of symbolic expression. He valued spirituality in a way that no other psychology did. And I also think that my appeal or my attraction at that point was really academic. I used Jung a great deal in my dissertation on Yeats, the Irish poet, and I was dealing with a classic Jungian theme of the tension of opposites as Yeats worked within them in his own life, within Irish society, and within the production of that enormous body of work that he created. So my approach was always, I think, intellectual, and academic.
It only began to be real, I think, when I had to look at things myself. I remain forever grateful to my therapist who said at some point—I simply visited a standard therapist, and at some point the therapist said, “You know, the kind of questions you’re interested in, I think you’d probably be better served working with a Jungian.” I’m very grateful for that person’s insights to this day, and also, to his humility, that he was willing to say, “You’re wanting to go someplace that I’m not really prepared to go, and maybe you ought to do that.”
So with that, I undertook to find a Jungian analyst. At that point, there was only one between Washington, DC and New York City. That was a person outside of Philadelphia. So I started seeing him for two years, and then that led me at age 37 to go to Zurich for six years. Five years in residence, and the sixth year I was doing a dissertation. So I think in the long run, it was the presence of some deep voice within oneself—what Jung called the voice of the Self with a capital ‘S,’ not to confuse it with the ego—that began to speak at that point.
If you’ll forgive this footnote here, I think one of the things that we know for the standpoint of Jungian psychology is what we call psychopathology. Those invasions that we don’t want and that are unplanned are in many ways evidence of the autonomy of the psyche, which is really the Greek word for “soul.” It’s the autonomy of the human soul, and no matter how much we push it, or how much we program it, or however much we find ourselves directed towards maybe legitimate goals, it has a will and an intention of its own. When it’s not served, or respected sufficiently, it will pathologize. In my case, it showed up as, again, a midlife depression.
TS: Interestingly, in your new book with Sounds True, Living an Examined Life, you write that the second half of our life, it’s not a chronological moment, but a psychological moment. It sounds like you’re describing a psychological moment in your own life where you were initiated into, we could say, the second half of your life. So what is that psychological moment? This is the beginning of the second half.
JH: Sure, and I want to make clear what you just underlined here. This is less chronological that it is where one is obliged, for whatever reason, to radically question one’s assumptions, one’s tapes, one’s roles, one’s commitments. Sometimes it happens to people much—for me, it happened almost literally at midlife chronologically, but it’s not always that case. For some people, it’s the loss of a relationship, for others it’s being downsized at work, for others it’s obligatory retirement or changes in the body that one has to deal with. Or sometimes, people just wake at 3:00 in the morning, the hour of the wolf, and realize, “I don’t have a clue as to who I am, and what I’m doing here.”
So it varies for all of us. That’s why even talking about second half of life, we’re really talking about a moment when, for whatever reason, one’s obliged to ask a very large question: “Who am I apart from my roles? Who am I apart from my history? Who am I apart from my investments of energy and values?” All of which may be good, and yet if I’m doing what is right for me, then something within is going to confirm that. When it runs counter to my ego intention, then there’s a knock on my door, there’s a summons to show up, to pay attention.
I think people get those kinds of knocks on the door all the time. It’s just that we’ve all learned to override them, we can be frightened by them, we can be lulled by success in some areas. We can lose contact with that deeper voice within each of us that in the long run, will tell us what is right for us.
TS: It’s interesting that you use this word “summons,” that we receive a summons. You think of a summons as something you get from a lawyer knocking on your door. It’s a dramatic moment, you have to respond in a certain amount of time. It’s interesting that you would say that our deeper psyche summons us in some way—that’s a strong word.
JH: Well, it is, it is. To break through our comfort, our ease, our behavioral patterns, our habits, the power of our environmental instructions that we all receive from childhood to the present. It takes something powerful to cut through that and get our attention.
I often think of Tolstoy’s novella that was published in 1885, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich is a common name, sort of like John Johnson, and it’s about a person who lived wholly according to the dictates of his time and place. He went to the right school, he espoused the right attitudes, he married the right person, he lived in the right neighborhood, he practiced the career ladder. Nothing ever interrupted the flow of his life as it was supposed to be, until one day he has a pain in his side. The pain doesn’t go away, and it turns to be a terminal illness. After going through the five stages that Kubler-Ross later identified in the 20th century of denial first, and then anger at the interruption, and then bargaining, and then despair, he reaches acceptance in the final hours of his life. After he passes away, everybody around him is indifferent because it was about John Johnson, not about me.
Of course, what Tolstoy was suggesting is, again, here’s a person who got his appointment, and paradoxically, probably lived a more authentic life in those final days and hours than all the rest of those years put together. So it is for all of us: there’s so much of our life that’s routinized, and patterned, and goal directed—again, often good goals. At the same time, the psyche has another point of view, and when it wishes to, it will break through. I think [the word] “summons” is both reflecting the intensity of that encounter with one’s own soul, and also that it brings with it an accountability. If you get a summons from a court or a lawyer, you have to pay attention, and if you don’t pay attention, there are going to be consequences. So I’ll stick with the word summons, I think it’s appropriate.
TS: Now, one other thing I want to circle back around and underscore, because it’s really making a big impression on me in this conversation, is your emphasis on how our deep psyche has its own notions of what we need, what our soul needs in our life. Our ego-self may have other ideas, and that this deep psyche actually, I think you said, has this autonomous nature. So tell me more about that. How can there be this part of me that feels so separate, perhaps, for some of us at certain times in our life, than our conscious self going about its business?
JH:Well, first of all, I think the moment we’re born, in the earliest days, we’re linked to that deep source of truth, and it ‘ called our instinct. But being tiny and dependent and vulnerable in the world, we have to be able to try to “read” the world—and I put “read” in quotes—to figure out what’s going on here, who are you, who am I? What’s the nature of the traffic that I’m experiencing with the world? And we slowly begin to make little stories up about that—are you safe, are you unsafe? Can I approach you, can I not? Am I myself of value, or do I have to hide out and avoid asking for anything, or do I have to twist myself to be acceptable to you? A thousand stories begin to emerge.
Frankly, those adaptations have been necessary from the beginning of human nature, where one has to pay attention to the world around us. We can’t just grow up in isolation, we have to make these adaptations. But every adaptation has the potential of separating us further from our own instinctual truth. This is why Jung said once that all neuroses are essentially where we’ve gotten separated from our nature. [He] called us the “sick animal.” Society requires, and legitimately, compromises and trade-offs. But the greater the trade-off, potentially the greater the self-estrangement. Again, that’s what the psyche in time begins to respond to, and to communicate.
There are autonomous systems within us. For example, the ego does not make up dreams, and yet we know if we pay attention to dreams over time, they operate from some place within us that’s knowing, but has a different perspective than ego consciousness. If you think you are inventing your dreams or you can direct them, you just try to summon up a certain dream, and the psyche will pay no attention to you. It will say what it wishes to say.
We also have energy systems; when I’m doing what’s right for me, the energy is there, it flows, you feel that. It’s called “in the flow,” as a matter of fact. We can mobilize our energy to take care of life’s necessary business, but if we keep mobilizing it in a direction counter to the depth and wisdom and purpose of the soul, then we’re going to pay a price. That price is called burnout, boredom, depression, et cetera, which often leads, then, to self-medication as a form of trying to anesthetize that internal discord.
The feeling function, too, is something that is autonomous. We don’t choose feelings; feelings are autonomous responses to our circumstances as viewed from the deep self. We can pay no attention to our dreams, we can repress them, we can project them onto others—there are a thousand things we can do with feelings, but that’s the attitude and practice of ego consciousness in its defensiveness. We don’t choose feelings.
So if over time, I continuously override my feeling function, then you’d have to say, “Now, where is that going to go?” It is going to show up, again in self-anesthetizing behaviors or a kind of recurrent anger that people often have, where they are unwittingly colluding with their own self-estrangement. Or even somaticize—sometimes, the unaddressed goes into our bodies. So the point is, these things never go away, they always go somewhere.
TS:You know, Jim, this is a really big idea, that we don’t choose our feelings. I don’t think that’s obvious to a lot of people, and if anything, if we’re feeling something and we don’t like the way we’re feeling, we feel bad about feeling that way.
JH: Sure, absolutely, sure. I’ve actually found people who felt guilty for their feelings, or guilty for, say, feeling depressed. “I have all these things, all these things are working well for me. Why am I depressed? There’s something wrong with me.” That’s—again, from the standpoint of the ego, they can’t account for the autonomy of the other. As Jung put it once, anyone who really discovers the power of the unconscious knows from that point on, one is not the master or mistress of one’s own house. That’s a certain dethronement of the ego’s fantasy of sovereignty, of omniscience, and omnipotence. Out of that can come a humbling conversation, but a richer conversation.
TS: Knowing that you don’t choose your feelings, how has that changed over time, how you relate to your feelings, especially when they’re difficult, when you’re feeling difficult feelings?
JH: Sure. Well, I think in the course of any given day, all of us have learned to override our feelings. Sometimes, frankly, the pace of modern life is such that you virtually have to take care of the necessary business that life brings to you. But I find my feelings always showing up, and now I sort of wait to look for them. Again, they can show up in the middle of the night, or they’ll show up the next day. Or even when I’m needing to struggle with some dilemma in life, some choice, some outer choice, maybe even something a little more mundane like how to start an article, or even a book.
I sort of put it in there, metaphorically, and the little people or whoever is running around inside, work on it. They don’t particularly pay attention to my ego schedule—”I’d like a report by 5:00 this afternoon on my desk if you will, please.” They don’t function that way. But they always get back to me; they’ll tell me while I’m driving in traffic, when my ego is distracted, and something will pop up, or again, in a telling dream, or I’ll wake up with clarity. I’ve found through the years—and I mean this quite literally—in my first half of life, I always assumed, “Well, you just have to work hard and figure it out for yourself, and then do it.” There’s a truth to that that’s how we mostly function. But today I’d have to say, whenever I need to know something important for me, I have to put it in there, and wait.
In 1939, Jung gave a talk to the Guild for Pastoral Psychology in London. He was saying in that talk, we all need to learn to wait as our ancestors learned to wait. He said, “If you wait upon the silence, it ultimately speaks; If you wait upon the darkness, it illumines.” Now, that’s a very nice sentiment, but one actually has to go through that to realize the reality of it, and one has to learn to trust that. So the difference between me now and when I was, say, 35, is that I’ve learned to recognize there is a wisdom within me that—call it a wisdom of nature, if you will, that’s wiser than my conscious life, and the two of us need to be in conversation together, we’re not enemies.
But this is a humbling process, and I constantly have to be saying to myself, “What is the soul saying?” When I align my conscious choices with whatever the soul’s intention is—in any given situation, whether it’s work or at home, or in how we relate to our own very private journeys—when I can bring those in some kind or harmony, I’ll feel the sense of well-being and purpose. Most of all, you could do all the things you’re supposed to do with your life as defined by the world around you, and still feel empty. If you’re doing what’s right for you, you’ll have that inner sense of confirmation, an inherent sense of rightness.
This is nothing sentimental; it’s actually a kind of brutal encounter, I think, with the reality and autonomy of our own natures. That won’t always fit in and make us comfortable with others. Many of the people that we would respect most in history are people who live troubled lives and suffered greatly and didn’t fit in, because fitting in is critical for the child and the infant—and to some degree, to all of us. And yet, if fitting in dominates the reality of the intentions of one’s own soul, then that’s a pretty severe price. Then you lose yourself, as Ivan Ilyich did.
TS: You wrote a previous book, Jim, called, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Really, Finally Grow Up. I’m curious about this idea of growing up, and how you define that. What does it mean to grow up to you?
JH: Sure. Growing up means, first of all, that I am wholly accountable. I think all of us have to say, “Look, I’m a responsible person; I pay my taxes, I take care of my children, I vote, I do all these things.” But for most of us, there’s some place in each of us that says something like, “Well, I really wish somebody else would take care of this for me.” Or, “I wish they’d explain all this to me, so I really knew what was going on.” Or, “I wish that somebody would just fix this.” “This” being the human condition. Growing up means essentially, “I’m it, I’m accountable.” Even though it sounds self-evident when we speak it aloud, emotionally speaking, there’s always that part of us that remains infantile, needy, avoidant. And growing up means I’m truly accountable.
As such, and one of the points I make in the book, is we often think, “Well, when I get to the end of this journey, I’ll figure out what it was about.” Well, I can give you a clue: on the last page of that long running drama we call our life, we die. We’re mortal, and I can tell you the ending right now. So the point is, every day we’re writing the pages of this story, and we’re doing it mostly on automatic pilot, mostly. And significant parts of it are derivative from those stories that we’ve internalized—some unique to our own biographies, some coming from our culture, from religious and educational influences, and a thousand other influences. Again, if they are in accord with the terrain of our inner life, we’ll feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment and meaning. And when they don’t, then there’s that summons we were talking about, the summons to sort of say in effect, “What does the soul want from me here?” That’s quite a different question.
TS: In your own life, Jim, what’s been the hardest aspect of growing up for you, if you’re willing to share that?
JH: Well, I certainly am. I’m thinking on my feet here, trying to think about, well, what is the hardest part? That’s a very good question. I do think that there is within us all, a kind of needy part that is wanting people to take care of us, that is wanting somebody to lift the burden of life for us, or again, explain things to us. I have to sort of metaphorically slap myself in the face and say, “Wake up, you’re it.”
I certainly remember as a child thinking, “There’s something wrong with all this.” I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I saw a big gap between people’s values and how they were behaving, and so forth, and inequities in nature, in society, et cetera, or questions that I had that just weren’t being answered sufficiently. But I remember thinking quite literally, “I’m just a child, I’m a kid. When I grow up, they’ll tell me.” I didn’t know what puberty was at that point, so when I went from grade school to high school, I thought, “Well, that’s when they tell you, because I can tell the high school kids are on the other side of this great divide, and they’re on the adult side. Plus, they act cool, they act like they know what’s going on.”
Well, what I had tumbled to unwittingly was the traditional rites of passage, where youth were pried out of their dependence on the hearth, and initiated, albeit into a much simpler society, yes, but into a society in which they were given a sense of, what is the bigger picture of our tribe? What is our cosmic heritage here—who are our gods and from whence have we come, and who are the wise ancestors? Here’s how you function in our society, here are the rights, duties, privileges, expectations of adulthood. Of course, almost all of that is gone these days. We take kids out and we say, “Here are computer games, and get some computer skills, and grow up, and get a job. How you do it is on your own.” So most people are still waiting for someone to come along and explain it to them.
One of the aspects of traditional rites of passage was an isolation and an ordeal. In other words, one had to learn to face one’s fears, mobilize one’s resolve, find courage, find persistence and wherewithal. These are the attributes of adulthood. Nature equips us with these potentials, with these tools, if you will, but they’re not necessarily developed by our culture. If anything, we have an infantilizing culture, and they’re not supported by the wise elders, by and large. So people are out there adrift in big bodies, big roles in life, huge responsibilities and accountabilities, and are psychologically speaking, still children. That’s a kind of disappointing prospect.
TS: Why do you say we have an infantilizing culture?
JH: Well, when you stop and think about children and adolescence, what do you think about? In terms of emotional disposition, they are impulsive, they are impatient, they don’t like ambiguity, they want clarity, resolution. They tend to fall into black-and-white thinking, they are too insecure to own their own stuff, so they’re always looking to somebody else to blame it on. They organize their lives out of evading as much responsibility as they can, and, again, they’re looking for someone to explain it to them. Most of all, it’s a culture driven by sensation, meaning you don’t have to reflect upon yourself if you’re distracted all the time, and our electronic world has made distraction more possible than any time in history.
Blaise Pascal in the 17th century in France wrote in his Pensées, or “thoughts,” he said, “Even the king will grow miserable if he reflect on himself, and so we invented the jester to distract the court from reflecting upon self.” He said at that point, “All of our trouble stem from one thing: that we cannot bear to be alone with ourselves in our private chambers.” Now, that’s Pascal, before the Internet and the 24/7 buzz that our culture represents. Our culture’s answer to the existential anxiety of being human is distraction. If you’re distracted, we’ll keep you entertained or diverted in some way, until someday, you realize: you know, that was your life, that was your life.
TS: Now, Jim, you talked about [how] part of not growing up can include looking to other people to give you answers for your life. I’m imagining someone who says, “Look, the reason I listen to Insights at the Edge, or buy books by James Hollis, Wisdom for the Second Half of Life, is I’m hoping he’s going to provide me some answers. That’s why I’m reading Jim’s book, and yet he’s telling me that means I’m not growing up.” So there must be some kind of paradox here.
JH: You’re absolutely right. I try to tell people or provide people with perspectives, tools, and most of all, questions. Little questions get you a little answer. Big questions like, “Why am I here? In service to what, really? What truly matters for me? How do I find my path?” I can’t answer that for another person. If they’re looking for answers, that’s exactly that kind of infantilized position I was describing. What I want to do is present people with questions that open them to the richness of their own journey.
I’ve often said to people, you have no idea how every day, the magnitude of your life is up for grabs based on your choices. In an earlier book, The Middle Passage, I suggested that every morning, we all awaken to two gremlins at the foot of our bed. One is called fear; that’s the voice that says, “It’s just too much for you. You can’t manage it. Try to figure a way to wiggle out.” The other gremlin at the foot of the bed is called lethargy. That’s the voice that says, “Chill out, tomorrow is another day. Turn on the telly, have a bonbon.” Those two forces—fear, the magnitude of life’s challenge to us; and lethargy, the power of that part of our own unconscious that wants to pull us back into the sleep of childhood—those are our enemies. There are no other enemies in life, those are the enemies. Guess what, we carry them with us everywhere we go. No matter what I do today, they’re going to show up again tomorrow.
I’m very mindful of that. I do a lot of public speaking, and I’m very much an introvert, so there’s already a contradiction there. I know before every public talk—and I’ve been teaching for I think, 54 years now, something like that—I always feel lethargic. My body hurts, I don’t have any energy, I think everything I’m going to say, everybody knows anyhow. So I just call it my pre-talk neurosis. I’m just used to it by now, and the moment we start, it all changes, it all changes. What is that but the demons of fear and lethargy trying to grab me, and pull me under? If I allow that, then in some way, the meaning and purpose of my life is violated.
You can say, “But the purpose of life is to be comfortable.” OK, well, then that’s your value—live it, and see if that works for you, see what your psyche has to say about that. I don’t see comfort as the goal; I think to make your life more interesting to you, to make it more challenging, a developmental agenda, I think that’s where it gets interesting and exciting. As I open this first page of the book, I see a sentence here: “We long to make sense of things, figure out who we are, wither bound, and to what end, while the great eons roll on in their mindless ways.” So it falls to us then to make sense of this journey. It does. If I don’t try to make sense of my journey, now, somebody is going to be doing it for me.
Throughout history, quite frankly, the world has been full of received authorities who are perfectly willing to tell you who you are, what your values are, and what your choices ought to be. Those forces are still with us, all right? However, much of the institutional authority and traditional authority that the voices once had has diminished greatly. As Jung pointed out, to be really a modern is not just to be alive and breathing in our time, he said it’s to realize that the task of meaning has shifted from the shoulders of the tribe, through village mythology, and village institutions, to the shoulders of the individual. What a burden, and what a rare privilege.
Psychologically speaking, people have never been freer, and yet, however intimidating that invitation may be, we contrive these distractions, avoidances, anesthetization processes to try not to show up. In not showing up, I think we’re violating something deep. It has nothing to do with our ego, it has to do with whatever it is we’re being asked to bring to the table of life.
TS: OK. I want to talk quite a bit more about this meaning-making task that each of us as individuals has. But before, I want to get into this idea of, is this lethargy—one of these gremlins you talk about—at work in my life, or am I just relaxing? Life is stressful, there’s a lot of pressure on me. I want take time to just unwind, and be, and relax. How do I distinguish, is this the gremlin of lethargy, or am I just enjoying and relaxing a bit, Jim? Come on.
JH: [Laughs.] Well, there again is a good question. Again, this is the basic point. It’s not what you do, it’s what it’s in service to inside. In other words, you stop and think about that. I can do any act, and the question is, is that a good thing to do, or a bad thing to do? And the answer is, well, what is it really in service to inside? Then you begin to have a different perspective on things. If the motive is avoidance, then you know that’s a gremlin of lethargy at work. If you’re in some way taking care of yourself, and compensating for the pressures of your schedule and legitimate commitments out there, that’s only a wise and healthy thing to do. That’s a form of self-respect.
You don’t always know the immediate answer to the question, “What am I doing, and in service to what?” But I think if you keep asking it, it will reveal itself, because the truth is, our lives are full of shabby excuses, we all have them. That’s what leads to living in what Jean-Paul Sartre called mauvais fois, bad faith. We live in bad faith with our own souls. It’s not written anywhere that we’re to work ourselves to death or to be wholly on the ramparts somewhere. From time to time, one has to—there’s a wonderful phrase in Walt Whitman, “I loaf and invite my soul.” I don’t think he had any problem with inviting his soul. Sometimes you have to do that by doing nothing.
TS: OK. Let’s circle back around to this meaning-making task. There’s a chapter in your new book, Living an Examined Life, called “Choose Meaning Over Happiness.” I can imagine someone saying, “Well, I’d like both, please.” Do I really have to choose meaning over happiness? What do you mean by that?
JH: Well, first of all, good luck with having both. Maybe you will, because what we call happiness is a momentary, transitory affective or feeling state that comes from us when we’ve in some way, lived in right relationship to ourselves. The problem is, it’s transitory. If you could store it, and drop on it whenever you wanted, that would be terrific. But one learns to recognize that, again, the autonomy of one’s psyche in some way is often calling us in a developmental agenda to places that will be conflictual, difficult, that requires to grow and learn. Not to mention the impact of the outer world upon us that may force us into situations where we have no idea.
To me, one of the supreme examples of that [can be] found in the marvelous work by Viktor Frankl in his account of his experience at Auschwitz. He said, “I found they could take everything away from me, and family, and profession, and health, and dignity, and everything except for one thing. And that was the power to choose the attitudes I found myself in when I couldn’t choose my circumstances.” He called this the final freedom. He actually developed a therapy out of that horror, called logotherapy, or really, the therapy of meaning.
So we don’t choose meaning; meaning is a byproduct of something, and happiness is a byproduct. So if I’m very thirsty, happiness is a glass of water. Too much water is a flood. Happiness is very contextual, very idiosyncratic, and things that might have made you happy at some stage in your journey are powerless at this stage of the journey. We’re continuously growing and leaving something behind.
In the Constitution of the United States, we’re told it’s about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now, scholars tell us that what Jefferson meant by happiness was a life of satisfaction as you would construct it. It wasn’t happiness in the conventional sense that we have today, which is kind of theoretically a blissful, carefree attitude. You can only buy that kind of happiness by denying the reality of the world’s problems around you. It’s rather, though—if Jefferson was correct, a life you construct in which you find a sense of purpose and satisfaction. And it’s not that we’re against happiness, it’s just that you can’t bottle it up and store it. It’s rather you’re living in a way that’s meaningful to you. Happiness floods you from time to time.
TS: OK. I’m with you about happiness being ephemeral, and something that comes and goes. How would you help someone who’s having trouble with meaninglessness in their life? They don’t seem to find any meaning right now, someone who’s listening.
JH: Sure. That happens to many people. That’s what happened to me in midlife. I had achieved all of the things I was supposed to achieve, and they provided a sense of happiness, until they didn’t. That became a kind of a desert experience for a while. That became a kind of wasteland. When I went to Zurich to study, I didn’t just suddenly decide, “Oh, I’m going to change my profession.” I went thinking, “I’ve got to go deeper into this, because it’s so far the only meaningful thread I’ve found through this labyrinth.” So where that was going to lead, I really didn’t know.
When I finished over there, I continued to teach in academia for a while, because partly, that was my day job, and I still valued it. But then I began to realize, really what I find more meaningful is conversations with adults, and not 18-year-olds. There’s nothing wrong with being 18, we’re all former 18-year-olds. But there was a certain kind of conversation that I knew one had to have gone through some of life’s experiencings, and the sort of battering, if you will, of the ego that begins to toughen up and strengthen it, to the point it can begin to look at itself, in a way.
Now, I’ll just give you a quick example. Once in another city, I was invited to talk to a group of advance students at a university on the psychology of relationship. It was three-hour seminar, and the first 90 minutes, we talked about the nature of the psychological mechanisms of projection, transference, et cetera, et cetera. So just a sort of diagram [of] what attracts people and how they being to interact with each other. Then we took a rest break, we came back, and I said, “Now, let’s apply these ideas, these understandings of the mechanisms of relationship to your current relationship, or to one that recently broke up.” These very bright students, it was just like the curtain came down. They had nothing to say. Not that they weren’t bright—they hadn’t reached enough ego strength to bear looking at themselves, they didn’t have enough life experience to actually look upon, and therefore—again, it reminded me, well, that’s why I prefer to talk to people in midlife and beyond.
Now, in terms of your larger question about people feeling things that are meaningless, I think from time to time, we all go through that. There are small nodules of that, and some very large nodules that become crevices in our psyche, because one thing that’s very clear to me, our psyche is a developmental process. We develop biologically from the zygote to the elderly being, we are constantly seeking—I think our psyche is always growing and wishing development and enlargement, so whatever serves for this phase of the journey will be outlived. So part of what brings people into therapy, or [why] they experience at times as meaningless is that the roadmap that they’ve been using, that might have worked for a while or maybe didn’t work very well at all, no longer fits the inner terrain. It no longer is applicable.
Or there’s that terrible in-between. In everybody’s life, there are terrible in-betweens where something at some level has to die, which is how nature renews. The ego is never thrilled with that. Give you a quick example: a client years ago came in at age 40, afraid that she might have a terminal illness because she had a very powerful dream in which she’s in a hospital, and her favorite relative comes to her and says to her very sweetly, “It’s time to die.” She said, “OK.” She accepts it in the dream. Then that was the dream.
And we began to look at that, and she was right on schedule: she was at 40, she had served every tape and plan that her culture had given her, served it well, and then it was done. The last child was out the door and so forth, and I was saying essentially, “Welcome to the second half of your life.” Yes, something’s dying; what’s dying is your old understanding. What’s dying is the old roadmap, and we have to endure a difficulty in-between that you just have to sit with for some time.
I think just because I went to Zurich, it didn’t mean the process was ended, it was just beginning. Jung said once in one of his letters, he said, “The dread and resistance we have to really dealing with the depths of our own soul is understandable because it’s very intimidating.” He said, “It can even be the voyage to Hades.” And that’s his phrase, and so it is.
TS: You’re good with the dark language, Jim. You wrote a book called Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places. I thought, “That’s a title, Swamplands of the Soul.” It’s kind of like the journey to Hades as you’re currently describing. A sentence from that book is that, “In every swampland, there is a task.” I thought that was really interesting, how we find the task that’s in whatever swampland we might find ourselves [in] at different points in our life. How do we find the task?
JH: Well, in that book, and it was a discussion of things like depression, addiction, loss, betrayal—you know, all the good things that come to us in life—that the gods metaphorically, or the choices of others, and the consequences of those choices, or choices that we’ve made, and perhaps without intended consequences. Sooner or later, we visit swampland places where we feel overwhelmed, where we feel battered, where we feel a loss of purpose, and so forth. So what I try to do there is in each of those dismal places, to say there’s always a task.
Now, for example, let me use the one I was giving personally, and that is to have a depression in midlife. What I experienced it as, was a kind of loss of energy for the repetition of what I’d been doing. Now, when you’re committed to doing those things, that certainly is a disconcerting encounter. What I didn’t know, and couldn’t have asked at the time, was, “All right, now, what might your psyche want you to be examining, or exploring?” That’s a different question; it’s not what the ego wants, it’s what your own soul wants. That doesn’t always lend itself to an immediate answer. That’s why, again, we have self-medication, and so many distractions, possibilities in our culture.
So in every swampland, the task is to be found. For example, take another one, loss. We all experience losses in life—some big, some small. In every loss, there is a feeling of having something taken away from us that we value, and yet we’re powerless to recover that which was taken away. So we really have to say, “How is it that I can continue to value what was present there, and maybe serve that value, and not be stuck in this place?” In other words, I move forward, not in denial of the loss, but by in some way utilizing it, and valuing it.
So for example with the loss of people in my life, and I’ve lost several people very near and dear to me. I repeatedly ask myself, “How is it that I’m serving the values that we had in common?” When I do that frankly, it gives me a sense of renewal of purpose, and the energy to overthrow that day’s particular lethargic visitation.
TS: That’s beautiful, the values you have in common, meaning your common heart-ground with that person.
JH: Sure. One of which is my own son who passed away 10 years ago. I grieve that every single day, and yet he and I were very close friends, and committed to very similar values, and so part of what I do every day is in service to our relationship. It doesn’t bring him back, but then in another way, we could say he’s also not really gone.
TS: There was one other element from Living an Examined Life that I wanted to bring forward, which is, towards the beginning of the book, you talk about how Jung observed that the work of an evolved human being consisted of three parts: insight, courage, and endurance. One of the things I noticed was that courage, you could say, is the opposite of the gremlin of fear that you were describing. You could even say endurance in a sense is pretty oppositional to lethargy—”I’ve got to keep working on this thing.”
JH: That’s right.
TS: But when you talk about insight as part of this, you call it the “triune task,” insight, courage, and endurance. What do you think are the important insights we need to have to become an “evolved human being”?
JH: Well, in so many ways, the insights come either out of what you’ve learned from your own experience, or in the context of therapy, where that dialogue can bring certain things to the surface. But it can only take us part of the journey, as Jung was suggesting, to have an insight into something. Namely, “My old plan isn’t working very well.” Well, to live that requires courage, and courage is in a sense, showing up for the task, for the summons that we’ve talked about. And endurance means sticking it out over time. When we do that with fidelity, then we arrive at a different place.
For example, many times people know, “Well, I have to end this particular relationship,” or “I have to stop that and put my energy elsewhere in my life.” And yet to do so is costly. It might be painful, or it might cause you to feel very lonely, out there by yourself, and so forth. So for those reasons, understandable reasons, people stay stuck. In the end, everybody has stuck places in their personality, and in their history. Stuck places always go back to an early story that still has power over us, and all stories are provisional, and they’re fictive in nature, but we don’t challenge them, they’re going to make the choices for us. That’s where that insight is so important.
I’ve often said to people, and it sounds preposterous at some level, but it’s like, you’re not what happened to you, all right? Many times, people had grievous stories of abuse, or neglect, or whatever. It’s natural for a child to identify with that, and be caught in the stories that arise out of those kinds of experiences. But you’re not what happened to you; you’re what is wanting to enter the world through you. You are, in some way, the unfolding journey that we all have. That insight can be helpful because the power of the old stories, and the power of the early sense of self that we have is extraordinary.
The good news is there’s always something in us that’s wanting to heal, and something that’s wanting to grow. The human ego is caught as a badminton bird between those at times, but insight is the first step, and then you have to step into what your life is asking of you. If it was easy, it would be easy. We wouldn’t use a word like “courage” if it was easy. It’s because it’s difficult that it requires courage. Of course, that comes from the French coeur, to have heart, to grab hold of your heart and jump into it. And to stick with it until something else begins to evolve in your life, and it does.
Do people change? Of course they change. Sometimes they change autonomously, just naturally, if it’s the developmental process unfolding. Many times it takes a crisis, it takes an enormous amount of resolve and persistence to really change. If I didn’t believe in people changing, I would not be a therapist and I wouldn’t be a writer, I don’t know what I’d do. But my whole life has been based on the power of insight, of education, to help us get some greater sense of personal autonomy, own some measure or mastery over our own life, and be able to live a journey that makes sense to us, even if it’s not understood by one’s family or by one’s culture.
TS: Just to ask another personal question, if it’s OK, Jim. At this point in your life, what would you say is the courage and the endurance that’s being asked of you at this point?
JH: Well, there are a thousand answers to that. The obvious ones—I’m now 77, so I’m dealing with the issues of aging and mortality like anyone else, and one of the talks I’m giving these days on the road is living more fully in the presence of mortality, because I think it’s precisely that that makes our life meaningful. If we were here forever, you just choose this for a century and then make another choice for another century. After a while, you see, nothing would matter. It’s because we recognize that this is a very short pause we have between the mysteries of before being here, and after being here, and our task is to make that pause as luminous as we can.
So I ask myself, what is the best way to live this journey insofar as nature and external reality allows me to live it at this point? On another personal level, I’ve found myself in recent years, in many ways, over-committed. So one of the issues that I’m certainly dealing with at this point, is saying “no” more often, and resisting over-commitment and so forth. I don’t always do a good job of that, but I also know that that’s going to be increasingly important as the body changes, and as this journey progresses. There’s always a challenge that we have to show up for. We don’t often get to choose the challenge; life or the soul chooses it for us.
TS: There’s another chapter title that really got my attention, and it’s called, “Choose the Path of Enlargement.” I’m curious for someone who’s listening to this, who is facing some kind of choice they need to make in their life, how do they know which is the direction of enlargement, what you mean by that?
JH: Sure. Well, just as we were creatures of adaptation, that security and survival were the number one priorities—and understandably so—so the power of security often diminishes us, and therefore we lead in some ways smaller lives. We cling close to shore, we don’t stay a lot on the high seas. We all know that life calls us to grow up, to show up, to step into it more fully, and yet to do so is to activate the old, old stories that are operating within virtually all of us. Stories like, “Well, if you do that, you’re just going to fall on your face, or people will laugh at you, or people won’t understand you. They’ll withdraw their approval and support from you.”
Those stories are not actually going to happen, although they could, but again, they’re the relic, or residue of the power of our original stories. Secondly, if they were to happen, is your life important enough to you, is it a meaningful path to live a path of diminishment? Now, if you don’t know the answer to the question, again, let’s say we’re facing a career choice, or a relational choice, or whatever the venue is that really where there’s a lot of internal conflict. If you ask yourself, “Does this choice make me larger psychologically, spiritually speaking, or does it make me smaller?”
Usually, we know the answer right away. We know. If you don’t know, you keep asking, because it will reveal itself. Again, what I call the little people running around inside of each of us will work on it, and they’ll get their committee report back to us. So enlargement means not in the sense of ego aggrandizement, like, “I’m important, and I’m powerful, and I’m whatever.” In fact, those are often compensations for feelings of deep insecurity. It’s rather saying, “What is the path of growth and development for me?” When I step into that, that’s enlargement, that’s enlargement. When I run from it, it’s a diminishment of my capacity, of my potential.
TS: You also write, Jim, [that] the embrace of ambiguity is part of what opens us to enlargement.
JH: Sure, sure. The human ego is, again, a functional complex whose purpose is to sort of manage life as best it can, to deal with outer tasks, but also to manage our level of distress or anxiety. So ambiguity inherently is unpleasant to the human ego. That’s what produces one-sided behavior, that’s what produces our maladaptions, that’s what produces fundamentalisms of all kinds, is the effort to rid us of ambiguity. If I have clear marching orders, I don’t have to stop and think “Who am I?” in the morning, or what my life is about, I just follow directions.
Again, that’s how most of history has functioned, and many lives still function today. One is in some way living someone else’s life in doing that. Ambiguity is not easy. As a child, I remember thinking, “Well, if I read enough, learned enough, met the right people, I’ll figure out what life is about.” Well, dream on; it gets more ambiguous—the more we know, the less we know. And the more the ambiguity, in some way, is what frankly gets us our journey. We don’t grow through certainty, we grow through doubt. We don’t grow through resting easy in the saddle, we grow when something needs to be left behind. So ambiguity is inherent to anyone who’s really being honest about their life, and about the nature of the universe. Certainty is certain only for today, and tomorrow, we’ll outlive it. The day we have better questions, or better instruments today certainly becomes tomorrow’s imprisonment.
TS: To conclude, it sounds like your wish for people in a book like Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, has more to do—and correct me if I’m wrong, but it has more to do with opening up to the depth, ambiguity, swamplands, deeper questions, someone’s own personal sense of meaning, than any kind of checklist of some kind.
JH: Absolutely. In other words, if I had the arrogance to say, “All right, here are 21 truths that are true for me, and they will be for you.” OK. Well, maybe a person might try them in good faith, but again, they have a psyche that has its own opinion, and its opinion will show up one way or the other. If whatever I said was wholly taken in by someone else, there again is the flight from their personal authority. What is true for them? Find out what is true for you, and live it. If you do, your life has purpose, and meaning, and depth. So what I’m trying to do here is saying, “Here are the issues, here are the tasks, here’s some thoughts about that.” But you have to apply them in your own way. You have to find how this works in your life.
When you do, you gain greater authorship of your life. You have a greater sense of personal agency, and you’re living, then, in good faith with others. Again, we’re not here to fit in, we’re not here to please the world, we’re not here to serve the old stories, and we’re not here for narcissistic self-indulgence either. Nothing of what I’ve been saying is about endorsing narcissism or self-indulgence, quite the contrary. It’s calling for humility, and calling for sacrifice. What’s being sacrificed? The ego’s fantasy that it’s the boss, that it’s in charge. The ego’s job is to execute as consciously and faithfully as possible what it needs to do to be in the world more authentically. In a true dialogue with the depths of one’s psyche, the ego is often going to find itself put into precarious position. But that’s where our life takes on its fine edge, and that’s where it gets most interesting, and that where we begin to live what I call the high drama of the soul.
TS: I’ve been speaking with James Hollis, he is the author of the new book, Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey. Jim, I always enjoy talking to you, and learn so much. Thank you so much for your depth, and thank you so much for talking about the swamplands, and the journey to Hades. I notice whenever I speak to someone and they name those experiences, I feel a kind of inner light in the midst of that darkness being named, so thank you.
JH: Thank you, Tami, it’s been a privilege to talk with you, and I appreciate Sounds True publishing this book.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.