Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Review of two books by James Hollis

My review (below) of two new books by James Hollis, was published in the spring 2009 issue of the Newsletter of the C.G. Jung Society of Montreal.

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Why Good People Do Bad Things:
Understanding Our Darker Selves
James Hollis
New York: Gotham Books, 2007, 272 pps.

What Matters Most:
Living A More Considered Life
James Hollis
New York: Gotham Books, 2009, 288 pps.

The older we get the more life seems a journey. An excellent guide on this journey is Jungian analyst James Hollis, who is the author of two new books, Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves and What Matters Most: Living A More Considered Life. Both of these books will reward the reader with many insights into life’s journey; both are an invitation to psychological and spiritual wholeness.

Hollis asks, “Why do good people do bad things?” To answer this question he turns to C. G. Jung¹s archetype of the Shadow, which he defines as being “composed of all those aspects of ourselves that have a tendency to make us uncomfortable with ourselves, it is what discomforts the sense of self we wish to have.” Hollis points out that “Of the many concepts Jung articulated, few if any are richer than his idea of the Shadow.” For Hollis, and other Jungians, an understanding and awareness of the Shadow part of the human psyche is one of the roads to wholeness and individuation. This is especially important for those of us in the second half of life; it is a time in which, as Hollis writes, “The critical summons is to recover a personal sense of authority, explore, thoughtfully express the personal Shadow, and risk living faithfully the soul’s agenda.”

Of course, few people willingly examine their Shadow; it is usually kept hidden, avoided, or even denied. Some of us prefer to live in a cocoon of infantile expectations; others are complacent; and still others prefer to avoid doing the very work that will bring us depth and an insightful life. But this life, this journey, demands that we live intelligently and authentically, that we live a life of emotional and psychological maturity. Indeed, while working with Shadow material is difficult, there is a reward: this lies in the release in our lives of a reservoir of creative energy of which we had not previously been aware. This Shadow energy can find its expression in creative work, but is also shown in a renewed sense of who we are and a commitment to living a life aligned to our values and the “soul’s agenda.”

James Hollis’s most recent book, What Matters Most: Living A More Considered Life, will reward the reader many times over. I think it is one of Hollis’s best books for readers at any stage in life, at any place in the journey of life. Hollis begins by admitting that the book is an “eccentric compilation,” and it is! He writes, “We are not here to fit in, be well balanced, or provide exempla for others. We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange, perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little chunky selves, to the great mosaic of being.” This is a wonderful invitation to be who and what we are.

The book, then, is made up of individual chapters that can be read solely or consecutively. They are discussions of Hollis’s considered opinion and observation of life’s meaning and “what matters most” in life. A selection of some of the chapters’ titles will give an idea, a sampling, of what Hollis considers important in life’s journey:

That Life Not Be Governed By Fear
That We Consider Feeding The Soul
That We Respect The Power Of Eros
That We Step Into Largeness
That We Risk Growth Over Security
That We Find And Follow The Path Of Creativity
That We Encourage Spiritual Crises
That We Write Our Story, Lest Someone Else Write It For Us

Each of these chapters can be read separately; each is a thoughtful discussion and elaboration on a specific aspect of “what matters most.” They are diverse subjects, held together by Hollis’s intelligence and insight, and sometimes explained more fully with literary references.

The emphasis in the book is not to find happiness, it is to find wholeness and to live a conscious life that is in agreement with the soul’s needs and requirements.

For at least the last forty years an interest in mythology (and the belief by many in the absence of a cohesive mythology in our society) has taken hold of the popular imagination. Hollis reminds us of Jung’s “myth for our time” which he says is individuation. Hollis then writes: “In fact it is a summons to service, of ego submission to values larger than those previously embraced.” Thus, our journey is one of individuation, of inner discovery and self-knowledge. This journey is the central myth or adventure of our time.

Since I first began reading James Hollis’s books, in the early 1990s, and heard Hollis speak to the C. G. Jung Society of Montreal (he is a gifted and riveting public speaker) I have always found him to be one step ahead of my own thinking, one step ahead of me in my life’s journey. He has always been an astute thinker and a most welcome guide in these matters. If you want to begin reading Hollis, or if you have read several of his books, I highly recommend What Matters Most: Living A More Considered Life.

James Hollis concludes the book by suggesting the following:

This search for God, this longing for meaning and understanding, while often frustrating, has given me my journey, and my journey has given me greater acquaintance with many gods along the way , all, especially the dark ones, worthy of and demanding respect and many good and many bad people, but always an interesting life. In the end, having a more interesting life, a life that disturbs complacency, a life that pulls us out of the comfortable and thereby demands a larger spiritual engagement than we planned or that feels comfortable, is what matters most. (p. 256)

Stephen Morrissey

Winter 2009

1 comment:

Devin said...

This was a wonderful post Stephen! I had not heard of James Hollis before-he sounds like a fantastic speaker and teacher. I so loved the part where he said we are not here to fit in-but to be our unique individual selves-I think in a world where everything is increasingly becoming commodified that that is an incredibly important statement! Jung's work on the shadow self was what fascinated me most about all of his work-although with Jung it is hard to pick a favorite subject he talked about. There was an incident in my personal life that almost happened three years ago that showed me how dangerous the shadow self can be if it is denied-i am too ashamed to talk of what could have happened in a comment-as conceivably I could have put someone else's life in danger-although thank god this didn't happen-but I may do a post about it at my blog soon-if it will help anyone see that this aspect of ourselves does exist-and I think it gets more powerful the longer its existence is denied-thanks again for the wonderful review and best to you as always!!