Review of "Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life"
By James Hollis Gotham, 2005 Review by Marina Oppenheimer on Mar 10th 2015
Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by Jungian analyst James Hollis is a soul searching book on how to live middle age with awareness. This awareness will start by making new choices that will have more to do with our present than with our past. Not having as many responsibilities as in our younger years, Dr. Hollis suggests that we use our time productively by making conscious “that which is unconscious and has great power over our lives.”
In Chapter One Dr. Hollis talks about “expensive ghosts” which are none other than the unconscious forces that have shaped our lives during childhood. Being unconscious, these forces are not known to us and as such will have a big saying on how we live our adult lives. Then, at midlife our doubts about the decisions we made throughout the years will start arising as symptoms of depression, psychosomatic disorders, anxiety disorders, addictions, etc. The positive side of these symptoms is that they really are a wake-up call that will alert us to the need for transformation and healing. But why do these doubts arise at midlife? As the author points out, our ego needs to be sufficiently strong so as to be able to withstand the impact of our inner journey. Slowly but surely when we start our inner exploration we’ll realize that many of the choices we made earlier were not really about us but about our significant others. Furthermore, by midlife we will have lived away from our parents long enough so as to become aware of our transferences and the negative results they have generated around us. What we look for at this stage is the understanding that nothing “out there” will lead us to wholeness. For this task we can only lean on ourselves. Neither a special person, nor a profession or an ideology will make our life work for us. It is only us who really know how to get in touch with our Self.
This leads us to Chapter Two and the way of becoming who we really are. There is a saying in Spanish that states that if youtell me what you brag about I'll tell you what you are lacking; in other words, it showshow poorly some of us really know ourselves. Dr. Hollis brings up the example of homophobic individuals who attack gays for stirring up their unconscious doubts about their own sexual orientation. By using blame as their defense mechanism the fend off their anxiety. Furthermore, the author talks about how often adult children feel internally coerced to journey into unknown lands to overcompensate their parents' restricted lives. Or on the contrary, they unconsciously restrict themselves as a way of not alienating their parents from their lives. In this chapter Dr. Hollis links the “expensive ghosts” of Chapter One with the forces of moira and destiny. Already the ancients believed in the existence of powerful forces in the cosmos that even the gods feared. Today, says the author, these forces are still there and might be referred to as the balancing elements of the cosmos that work for all things to be where they need to be.
A very interesting topic of Chapter Three is what the author calls the wound of insufficiency by which we try to compensate for what we lack by looking for a mate, power, wealth, or fame to make us feel whole. One of the most pervasive reactive symptoms of not feeling complete is the need to be reassured by others. This brings us to the existence of our personal maya or veil of illusion that induces us to burden those around us with the task of making us feel satisfied with our lives. As Dr. Hollis points out, the biggest present we can make to our partners and children is having the courage to own the content of our own projections and release others from the task of pleasing us.
Chapter Four deals with the barriers to transformation, which have to do with those deep complexes that will remain unknown to us. These complexes will become apparent thanks to the mechanism of repetition compulsionbecause after getting the same result in very different situations we will be hit not only by grief but also by a sense of déjà vu. It is then that our journey towards self-knowledge will become visibleand inviting.
Chapter Five has to do with intimate relationships and their dynamics. According to the author, relationships are based on projections and transference. While projections are unknown issues from ourselves that we project unto others as a defense mechanism against anxiety, transference is the shifting of emotions from one person (usually a parent or a sibling) to another (usually a partner.) The end result of these dynamics is that they will prevent a relationship to be lived in authenticity by transforming it in a mere repetition of our past. Since both projection and transference are unconscious processes they will end up becoming a terrible burden to those around us. Until we become aware of our demands from others and ask ourselves the question: “What am I asking of my beloved that I need to do for myself?”, our relationships will stay stagnant and restricted.
Chapter Six deals with the evolution of the family during the second half of life. To evaluate how the family fared through the years Dr. Ellis proposes that we ask ourselves the following question: “How well did the soul flourish here: how much life was lost through the failure of modeling a larger life? Did we as parents tell our children that we loved them unconditionally and that most of all they should try to be themselves? Have we burdened them with the lives we have not lived or are they free to pursue their own and individual journey towards themselves? Dr. Hollis brings up as an example those of us stuck in the sadness of the empty nest syndrome, which is none other than a symptom of enmeshment and lack of individuation on the part of the parent. “The lessons of history reveal over and over that the struggling family will be dominated by the less conscious parent,” says the author. He then adds: “Friedrich Nietzsche once observed that the teacher is ill-served whose student does not surpass him.”
Chapter Seven talks about career versus vocation, which is a topic that deals also with the parent limiting the children in their professional vocation for fear of being alienated by them.
Chapter Eight deals with the psychopathology of the common man. From Dr. Hollis’ point of view a culture that is alienated from the mysteries of the cosmos is a culture besieged by conflict. This kind of culture usually generates ideologies based on hating others so as to avoid the responsibility of looking at ourselves with honesty. A contemporary issue like fundamentalism is none other than the nostalgia for a simpler time when ambiguities like women’s liberation, gay marriage, and individual freedoms did not exist. Dr. Hollis asks the question about how should we deal with the daily psychopathology arisen from living in a world with no access to myths. His answer is that only by exploring what goes on deep and beyond the surface we will find our own myth.
In Chapter Nine the author suggests how to recover a mature spirituality in a material age.
Dr. Hollis speaks about two important tasks: recovering our personal authority and discovering a personal spirituality. I believe that recovering our personal authority and not responding to external or borrowed priorities is an indispensable task if we want to live in harmony with our Self. Our personal spirituality will provide us with the strength we need to deal with life losses and suffering.
In Chapter Ten we revisit the existence of suffering in our lives and how to deal with it. As the Koran asks, do we expect that the pathway to the Garden of Bliss will be less troubled for us than for those who have preceded us? Dr. Hollis explains that each time we arrive inswampland zones a task awaits us. The task has to do with expanding our consciousness by willing to take the risk of abandoning the familiar and finding a new meaning to what is happening. Otherwise, our life will be wasted. In this chapter the author has included paragraphs on betrayal, grief and loss, doubt, loneliness, etc., underlining the fact that every one of these swamplands is an enrichment of the psyche/soul. Our destiny is to fight our way through suffering and end up wiser.
Chapter Eleven is about the healing of the soul and it has to do with the eleven questions posted at the beginning of the book. One of these questions I found particularly captivating and it has to do with “why, even when things are going well, do things feel not quite right?” According to the author, instead of following our own life script, many of us have lived lives based on parental mandates. In the business of younger years, the anxious feeling of things not being quite right is usually deadened by our many daily duties. But hopefully by midlife a feeling of dissatisfaction will induce us to start walking the road towards wholeness in order to become ourselves. Although I have enjoyed this book deeply I have to admit that it is not designed for the larger audience. In order to understand its concepts the reader needs to be familiar with Jungian terms and paradigms. Furthermore, I believe that sometimes the chapters repeat themselves as they deal with the same issue more than once. Despite these lacks, Dr. Hollis’s work is of excellent quality and gives his readers the hope of living a more meaningful second half of life.