Articles & Reviews

"Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path". Review of James Hollis' Creating a Life, Toronto: Inner City Books, 2001. 159 pages. From The C.G. Jung Society of Montreal Newsletter, March 2001.

By Stephen Morrissey

James Hollis' latest book, Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path , gives the reader the wonderful experience of sitting with an intelligent and articulate person, and listening to their reflections on the meaning and value of life. This is Hollis' sixth publication for Inner City Books. Like the other books he has written, this one helps the reader grapple with his or her own meditation on life, as well as initiate new areas of thought.

In the first section of Creating a Life , Hollis refers the reader to the increasing number of contradictions we are faced with as we get older, and the confusion that is caused by our inability to resolve them. Hollis uses Greek drama to describe experiences that seem to be common to many people. Hollis says that our lives are circumscribed first of all by "Fate, or moira , [which] embodies the world of givens, the world of limitations, the world of cause and effect. Our genetics, our family of origin, our Zeitgeist, the interplay of intergenerational influences--each is part of our fate." He goes on to say we also complicate and make worse our lives with hubris, "Which means arrogance at times, a character flaw at others, or sometimes simply the limitation of possible knowledge." A third aspect of the human condition is hamartia or "the tragic flaw," what Hollis calls "the wounded vision." Hollis writes, "Each protagonist believed that he or she understood enough to make proper choices, yet their vision was distorted by personal, familial and cultural history, dynamically at work in what we later called the unconscious."

Psychology has added to and changed the names of the terms by which we describe the human condition, but human experience, in essence, is the same now as it was in classical Greek times and before. Today we speak of psychological complexes that "lie at the core of who we think we are." Hollis writes that the reader "will have to deal with this core issue the rest of your life, and at best you will manage to win a few skirmishes in your long uncivil war with yourself." Indeed, it seems to be fate that the tragic vision of the Greeks is re-enacted by each of us in our equally tragic and wounded lives.

In this, as in his other books, Hollis refers to C.G. Jung's suggestion that "the greatest burden the child must bear is the unlived life of the parents." This refers to the parents' unexamined life and subsequent psychological projections onto their children. The child is left responsible for doing the emotional and psychological work the parents didn't do. In turn, this becomes a part of the core complex through which our perceptions of the world around us are filtered. In some ways, this parental burden forms the basis of our shadow work, and while it is painful when left unconscious, it can lead to an exhilarating awareness for the participant in a more examined life.

This is not a book for the faint of heart, for those who desire an intellectual quick-fix for what ails them, or for the individual who believes that a guru, a romantic partner, or anyone else will come along and save them. Hollis discounts the cure-all approach of both New Age adherents and fundamentalists of all religious persuasions. It is here that Hollis makes his "modest claim", and this is the basis on which the book's thesis is developed.

The thesis of Creating a Life is that to create a life one must examine one's life, and out of this examination comes an awareness of the true nature of one's soul. Our psychological foundation is made up of many things, including core complexes that we wish we could eliminate altogether, but that cannot be easily dealt with. Indeed therapy can't eliminate them either. According to Hollis, what therapy can do is help you observe the core complex. This, in turn, will help the individual become a more conscious person with a maturer vision of life. Hollis writes, "Therapy will not heal you, make your problems go away or make your life work out. It will, quite simply, make your life more interesting." Thus, the examined life is the more interesting life, and the corollary that follows from this is that "Consciousness is the gift and that is the best it gets."

If the result of our choices or unreflected actions are akin to Greek tragedy or drama, then we might also ask ourselves what is the myth that best represents our life journey? What is the myth that best explains our existence to us? Hollis writes that myth "as it is used here, refers to those affectively charged images (imagos) which serve to activate the psyche and to channel libido in service to some value." Are we living second hand lives, the unresolved cast-offs of our parents' experience? Are we living reflectively or are we living reactively?

By now most readers must be aware that we are not dealing with the activities of the first half of life. This text is not about ambition, career, or even traditional domesticity. It isn't Hollis' project to tell the reader what kind of life to create--his purpose is simply to define the foundation of understanding necessary to create an authentic life. An examined life best expresses the soul's purpose. Hollis' book is addressed to those people who have entered the second half of life, who have survived what Hollis calls the "gigantic, unavoidable mistake" of the first half of life. For Hollis, "The larger life is the soul's agenda, not that of our parents or our culture, or even of our conscious will."

This book is a meditation on the life journey of individuation. Jung's concept of individuation "has to do with becoming, as nearly as one can manage, the being that was set in motion by the gods." This, then, at a practical level is a process of psychological and spiritual maturity. A test for this maturity lies in one's capacity to deal with anxiety, ambiguity, and ambivalence. Hollis writes, "The more mature psyche is able to sustain the tension of opposites and contain conflict longer, thereby allowing the developmental and revelatory potential of the issue to emerge."

Part two of Creating a Life is comprised of twenty short chapters dealing with "attitudes and practices for the second half of life." These include: amor fati, the necessity to accept and love one's fate; that the examined life is one of healing; that the examined life is also healing for our ancestors; and so on. Some readers may feel overwhelmed by Hollis' listing and brief explication of these necessary "attitudes and practices." However, he is reassuring and directing the reader to observe his or her own unconscious as the primary authority in one's life. Individuation lies, in part, in the process of reflecting upon the processes of the unconscious mind.

Part three of Creating a Life brings to a conclusion James Hollis' meditation on how to approach the second half of life. Certainly, above all else we need to be grateful for being alive at this most liberal and tolerant of times and places in the history of humanity. Hollis refers to the myth of Oedipus that is suggestive of our own human condition.

How did Oedipus live out the second half of his life? We may each have our own personal myth to discover, a myth with which we identify and which gives our life substance, meaning, and depth. Oedipus, however, is an archetype representing everyman in his flight from the darkness of his core complex to his discovery of soul and meaning. Hollis writes,

After Thebes, after the stunning humiliation of midlife, Oedipus spends his final years in humble wandering, wondering what it is that the gods wish him to know. He learns, he absorbs, he winds his weary exile to Colonus, where he is blessed by the gods for the sincerity of his journey. It was not so much that he created his life, as that he allowed at last that life might create him, as the gods had intended. The price of this gift, both precious and perilous, was exile and suffering; the price of not finding his calling was ignorance, pettiness and annihilation of the soul.

James Hollis reminds the reader of what a profound and exciting journey we have been invited to undertake. It is the journey of individuation, sometimes frightening, never exempt from the many experiences and emotions that are part of the human condition, and always demanding we extend ourselves beyond what we thought possible. We continue to create our lives because, simply put, it is all we can do, if we have the gift of consciousness and are sensitive to the soul's command that we look inward.

Copyright © 2003 The author