Living an Examined Life

The Book Brigade talks to Jungian analyst James Hollis, Ph.D.

Posted Feb 15, 2018

Used with permission of author James Hollis.
Source: Used with permission of author James Hollis.

What life demands of us changes somewhere along the way. The second half of the journey is when we truly become grown up—and must own up to responsibility for the way things are turning out.

What led you to write your book on wisdom for the second half of life? Don’t people in the second half of life have enough wisdom to guide their lives?

The first half of life is characterized by either serving or running from the instructions, examples, and admonitions we acquire from family and culture during the formative days of our operational systems. So many of the messages from our environment are internalized and become unconscious, reflexive compliances or rejections that most of us live provisional lives, lives in service to what shaped us during our provisional conclusions about self and world. We have much information, even knowledge, but little wisdom regarding the power of these influences. And what we don’t know will in fact show up in our lives and hit us in the face.

What is the demarcation line for the second half of the journey: How does one know one is on that part of the journey? 

The “second half” of our journey is not a chronological moment but a psychological stage of awareness. Usually one does not begin to become conscious of the magnitude of these internalized messages until one is stunned into reflection upon them. For some this occurs during a divorce, an inexplicable loss of energy for one’s tasks, in an anxiety that arrives in “the hour of the wolf,” a depression, a loss of job, or children, or one’s role in life. If one is not enquiring, “Who am I apart from my history and roles,” good or bad as they may be, then such a person is much more likely to be living on automatic pilot, serving archaic stimulus/response demands.

What is an examined life? What needs to be examined, and why?

The examined life, as Socrates articulated millennia ago, entails looking into the root causes of my behaviors, and the patterns and consequences I am piling up. If I am not doing that, then I am most likely living very unconsciously and very reflexively. I might therefore be living someone else’s life, someone else’s set of priorities, or running from them. Either way, I am living inauthenticly, and the psyche will respond by intensifying the pathology.

What becomes different in the second half? How do you define “growing up”?

In the “second half,” I become aware that I am the only one present in that long-running soap opera I call my life and thus I may bear some accountability for how it is turning out. As long as I persist in blaming others, I continue to remain dependent and avoidant and a reluctant player in the unfolding of my journey.

From your own experience and that of your clients, what do you find it takes to feel “grown up”?

As we all know, there are many people in big bodies and big roles in life who are still governed by their unaddressed infantile fears, compensations, and avoidances. Growing up means full accountability above all things: “I alone am accountable for my choices and how my life is unfolding.” I have to ask more rigorously: “where is this choice coming from in me? What pattern do I see in my responses? Where is fear making choices for me?” Growing up means attaining personal authority over received authority, and having the courage to live it with consistency.

On what matters do most adults get stuck, in your experience?

I am fond of saying of psychological dilemmas, “it is not about what it is about.” Why do we get stuck? How can it be that we so easily identify such marshy zones in our lives? We typically fault ourselves for lacking sufficient will power to get unstuck. But if we have sufficient will, what is the problem?   The idea that stuckness is really about something else suggests that we have to ask what deep, deep anxiety or threat will arise from our getting unstuck. If we are ever to get unstuck, we have to ferret out what archaic anxiety we will have to take on to move forward. For example, is the deeply buried anxiety the fear of being alone, forsaken by others, or is it the fear of some potential conflict with others? Either has the power to shut down intentionality and resolve. 

What does your Jungian background contribute to a perspective on aging?

Many decades ago, Jung differentiated the two major stages of life, with many sub-passages within each. The first is about ego building. What do I need to learn, do, risk to step into the world—the world of relationship, the world of work, the world of adult responsibilities? But somewhere else we have another appointment with ourselves, in which we ask other questions: What is my life about, really? What do I need to do to live in good faith with my own soul? In the first half of life, we are ego-bound to ask, What does the world want of me, and how do I meet that demand? In the second half of life, we have a different question: What does the soul ask of me. (“Soul” is, of course, a metaphor for what is most truly us, as opposed to those thousand, thousand adaptations the world asks of us).

Drawing on Jung, you hold that we rarely solve problems but can outgrow them; how does one do that?

It is naïve to think we leave our history, with its primal promptings, behind.  They never go away, but where they once dominated ego-consciousness and directed our choices, they later become only noisome advisors. We have to decide who these archaic counselors are, and ask ourselves what our relationship to our own soul also asks of us. And out of that engagement ego-consciousness has to make its most courageous choice.

What do you mean by choosing enlargement?

In life’s many junctures of choice we all have to decide this simple, challenging question: Does this path make me larger, or smaller? We almost always know the answer quickly. Then the summons is to choose the larger, however intimidating it may be, or we live shallow, fugitive lives.

If you had one piece of advice for older adults, what would it be?

I would say to them, as I say to myself as an old person: Whatever wishes to grow within you—a curiosity, a talent, an interest—is life seeking its expression through you. Our old desire for comfort, even happiness, may prove an impediment. We are here a very short time. Let us make it as luminous and as meaningful as we can. Time to stop being afraid, and time to show up as yourself.

And what would you want to tell younger people so that they might approach all of life in a more seamless way?

I am asked all the time by well-meaning parents how they might spare their children their parents’ heartaches. They can’t. We all have to walk into the gigantic necessary mistakes of the first half of life, fall on our faces, and then get up and begin to take life on in the light of what we need to learn for ourselves.  We all have to find an internal source of guidance that we can trust and that always knows what is right for us, and to live it in the world with as much courage and fidelity as one can.  That is not something a young person is ready, or capable, of doing—yet.

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Living an Examined Life

Used with permission of author James Hollis.
Source: Used with permission of author James Hollis.