Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life – A Book Review

One of my favorite disciples of Carl Jung is analyst and author James Hollis. My most treasured in his collection is the 2005 classic Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up.

This is one of the most important and meaningful books I’ve read and re-read, and one that I’m constantly recommending to others. While not for the faint of heart, Hollis is a highly accessible writer (whom I’ve written about before). However, practicing fidelity to the soul is arduous work, no matter the messenger.

“Standing up to our fear is perhaps the most critical decision necessary in the governance of life and the recovery of the soul’s agenda in the second half of life,” says Hollis.

For those with any interest in Jungian psychology, this is an excellent primer. Not a particularly long book (260 pages) it is an incredibly dense read. He covers a wide variety of topics including; how the unlived life of the parent affects the child, the different types of depression, the many faces of addiction, success as a cultural icon, deciphering career and vocation, recovering personal authority, and the importance of dreams.

Hollis makes less foreign many Jungian terms such as the unconscious, individuation, transference, anima, complex, projection, and the Self, and is able to craft useful distinctions between words we tend to mix up or misuse:

  • anxiety (developmental and an elixir) vs. depression (regressive and a sedative)
  • pain (psychological and to be alleviated) vs. suffering (spiritual and to be plumbed)
  • ego (wishes comfort, security, satiety) vs. soul (demands meaning, struggle, becoming)

He offers counterintuitive claims such as solitude being the cure for loneliness, and notes, riddle-like, that we are the only person who is consistently present in the long-running drama we call our life.

While he doesn’t linger on childhood wounds, he says we all suffered at the hands of our parents and calls it “the wound of insufficiency.” In response, we tend to fall into one of three categories:

1) We hide out from life, avoid risk and sometimes even make self-sabotaging choices.

2) We overcompensate, seeking power, wealth, or the right partner.

3) We obsessively seek the reassurance of others.

Jung said that we all walk in shoes too small for us, and Hollis claims the antidote to that is radical self-examination. “Living within a constricted view of our journey, and identifying with old defensive strategies, we unwittingly become the enemies of our own growth, our own largeness of soul, through our repetitive, history-bound choices,” said Hollis.

He talks extensively about relationships and claims that many of us ask too much of them, and that what we don’t know about ourselves proves a terrible burden on others.

“We seldom appreciate how much freight is imposed on us by our partner, or by us upon them. In the many agendas of our histories, the deep desire to heal old wounds, to repeat them, or to find the good parent in the other person rises to the top … For relationships to survive this freight one needs luck, grace, patience, and an enormous devotion to personal growth.”

Is it any wonder we struggle?

The greatest gift another person brings to us, according to Hollis, is their “otherness” – not an imitation or confirmation of our limited vision but the immensity of the other’s soul, including the parts not to our liking. He encourages us to see relationship as a summons to growth instead of repairing old wounds or meeting our needs.

Hollis writes, “The inescapable truth of any relationship is that it can achieve no higher level development than the level of maturity that both parties bring to it.” He reminds us we are all “recovering children” who are dealing with “unmetabolized events of childhood” – both ours and others.

Hollis says that the chief disorders of our time are the fear of loneliness and the fear of growing up, and that growing up requires taking psychological responsibility for ourselves. Hollis warns:

“Until we accept this responsibility for ourselves, we are asking others to be a shelter for our homeless soul. As understandable, and universal, as that desire may be remember that others will be asking the same of us as well. How ingrown, and stagnant, such a relationship will prove to be.”

Duly noted.

Hollis wraps it up with this fierce truth:

“Feeling good is a poor measure of a life, but living meaningfully is a good one, for then we are living a developmental rather than regressive agenda. We never get it all worked out anyway. Life is ragged, and the truth is still more raggedy. The ego will do whatever it can to make itself more comfortable; but the soul is about wholeness, and this fact makes the ego even more uncomfortable. Wholeness is not about comfort, or goodness, or consensus – it means drinking this brief, unique, deeply rooted vintage to its dregs.”

(Hollis) Questions to ponder:

  • What gods, what forces, what family, what social environment, has framed your reality, perhaps supported, perhaps constricted it?
  • Whose life have you been living?
  • Why does so much seem a disappointment, a betrayal, a bankruptcy of expectations?
  • What has brought you to this place in your journey, this moment in your life?
  • Are you made larger, or smaller, by this path, this relationship, this decision?

 

 

 

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