On the Ash Heap with Jung and Job
In his book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, the Jungian analyst James Hollis writes, “we are the meaning-seeking animals.” Hollis shows that we often sabotage our lives when we act from hidden sources. These unconscious drives express themselves “through familiar pathologies of daily discord.” Growing up for Hollis involves making a more conscious and involved engagement in the “four abiding orders off mystery” These orders are the cosmos, nature, the other and Self. Hollis sees our purpose as “ the summons of the soul to a larger life”. Following Jung, Hollis defines this summons as not a service to ego, “but to what wishes to live through us.” Growing up involves finding ones place by seizing permission to lives our life. This process of individuation according to Jung, “cuts one off from personal conformity and hence from collectivity.” The challenge is to find the thing, which you are meant to do or to be; to find that thing that allows you to flourish rather than diminish. This flourishing takes place outside of the roles we find ourselves playing. Hollis asks an interesting question, “Are we the protagonists or a bit character in someone else script. And if so, whose script and what is the story?”
To change the script, we cannot do the same thing and expect different results. We cannot spend Tuesdays with Morrie and the rest of the week with Jack Daniels, thinking that we will achieve a profound transformation, unless of course, your goal is to master the emptiness of the bottle. Hollis argues that we become enemies of our growth when we engage in useless repetition. He believe that it is rare when a person, “ moves through this life with a sense of transcendent purpose, deep psychological grounding and a spiritually enlarged life.” Of course, the question of how transcendence, psychic grounding and spirituality are defined will be important. If Hollis believes that an authentic existence can only be achieved through a Jungian framework or that psychic salvation exists only within the Jungian institution, then his claims are mistaken. Life is neither Freudian, Jungian nor Lacanian. In the final analysis, Hollis does not tell us anything new. Yes, life is ambiguous. We have to “step toward center stage in the play we call our life.”
Hollis argues that our behaviors are the “continuing confessions of what we fear”. Hollis argues that we are wounded by our parents and haunted by our tribe. In such a state, “we have lost the power to conduct our own life.” We continue to “engage in self-defeating repetitions.” We continue to persist in “addictive strategies to fill the want within.” Rather than become life affirming, we have become life denying. To become free, we must become conscious of our actions and choices.
Hollis favors the answers given by Greek tragedy, “I created my life, I made these choices and stunningly the flood of unimagined consequences are the fruits of my choices.” Do these insights hold for the child dying of hunger, for the victim in the torture chamber or the concentration camp or do they insightful for the affluent citizen of the Western World? It is not unconscious forces that lead us to despair. This is where Jung’s mystical babble breaks down. The world is not predictable. It will bring disappointment and disillusionment. But this does not mean if we read the Book of Job, Kierkegaard’s Fragments, listen to Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz and watch Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, that we will finally overcome our dismay at the stupidity of human actions.
Hollis sees a conflict between the various elements that make us up. The collisions we encounter in our lives come from the tension between the soul and the ego. Hollis writes, “ when the ego prevails, change is forestalled and spiritual stagnation, even regression occurs.” Hollis believes that some “larger energy is at work in the universe, about which we know very little at all.” This is where Jung’s mysticism becomes inadequate. If the soul is in charge as Hollis claims, then evidence needs to be provided. Hollis contends that if we fail to listen to the voice of our soul, “we will suffer the dis-ease that arises” from violating its agenda. The energy in the universe according to Hollis, “has very little interest in our cautious plans or our conscious understandings, as Job found out.”
If we follow Hollis’ analysis then Job is responsible for what happened to him. “Energies” have no interest in reducing humans to worms, unless of course, one believes in X-File fictions. Hollis explains energy in terms of a complex. He writes, “ a complex takes place when an unconscious stimulus is received. You may be driving to work listening to the music on the radio…little do you know that the stimulation of that song has activated in your unconscious an produced a quantum of energy sufficient to flow into the present moment and dominate your consciousness.” This now explains why millions arrive irritable to work on Monday morning. Bad radio is the culprit.
Hollis believes, that “many of the deepest complexes will remain unknown to us.” A person addicted to Oreo cookies wonders what old tape is being played and finally realizes that the cookies given to him by an ex-girlfriend are a complex. The cookie addict finally realizes that his desire to eat the cookies is really a desire to devour the girlfriend who has become a hungry ghost. Hollis argues that these energies, “have a life of their own and bind us to the narrowness of our history….that of which we are not aware owns us.” Within this Jungian analysis, too much power is given to the unknown, the unconscious and the mysterious. Hollis writes, “Wisdom begins when we recognize that there are these split off parts of the personality that have a life of their own. They oblige us to serve historic patterns rather than be in the present with all the choices open and bind us like the mythic Ixion to the wheel of repetition.”
Hollis raises very interesting and valid points. Yes, no one can repair our wounds, meet our needs, or protect us from having to really grow up. It makes sense that we may repeat “the dynamics of our family of origin.” We interact with others the way in which we were raised. If a person grew up arguing with their siblings, they bring that argumentative stance into their other relationships. We are caught up in mutual projections that become a burden. We are caught up in the fantasy, “that there is this other who will make our life work for us.” What we call love is really a colonization of the other. Hollis asks us to consider answering the question, “What am I asking of my beloved that I need to do for myself.” Hollis sees love as a combination of “intimacy and distance, defense and openness, mutual toleration, ambivalence and ambiguity.”
Hollis contends that the “idealized family fails because we ask too much of it.” The family can of course be “a vehicle of tyranny: but my experience runs counter to Hollis’ claims. Hollis is a great supporter of “the individual” Given the protestant background of Jung’s thought, this is understandable. The protestant individual stands alone before God, stands alone before the judge, and stands alone even when in a family. So, the father says to his daughter, “I am not going to help pay for your university education, because I want you to be an “individual” and learn the value of hard work.” I consider such advice harmful. I find the Franciscan emphasis on the communal person to be superior to Jung’s emphasis on the individual who stands, “directly, nakedly before the universe”. This stance simply passes responsibility over to someone else. Here the Franciscan world of Little Bear is preferable to the Calvinistic universe of All My Children. In this standing alone, the neglected child learns the lesson that being-alone is preferable to being-with. Who will set right the mess created by the alcoholic father, the abusive mother and the god crazed priest? What elixir can help the person to finally throw away the fear instilled by an anxious parent?
Hollis tells us that he does not want to be a burden to his children. He writes, “ I have already told my adult children that I do not expect, nor do I wish, them to take care of me should I become dependent, or even mentally incompetent.” What is unsaid here, of course, is that other people’s adult children should take on the role that Hollis does not want his own children to carry out. Would not the truly courageous act be the one that avoids the burden to all those in the community? In other words, before become dependent, one should take the necessary steps to end one’s life in a noble way. Hollis wants the family to “serve the agenda of the soul.” I agree that we should be allowed to become what we are. I do not want my son or daughter to follow my example and be pained by the study of philosophy. We should be supported, valued and encouraged. It is always a question of how far one is willing to embrace values that diverge from one’s own cultural norm. I recall a recent bumper sticker that read, “My parents said I could be whatever I wanted, so I became an asshole.” One wonders how much diversity Jungian analysts would actually tolerate and how much otherness they would be affirm as “the radical gift of relationships.”
In contrast to Hollis’s advice that we become more psychological, which for him means “ to find the new, personal myth from within.” I propose that we become more philosophical, that is, that we begin to radically question the myths that have led us for so long. It is only through proper thinking that we can overcome the dead weight that our cultures present to us as instruments of instant salvation. These instruments of salvation are in fact banal, trivial and involve high maintenance stupidity.
Hollis asks, “ how are we to reconstruct a viable spirituality in a time of sterile materialism, failed institutions and hackers of shoddy spiritual merchandise in New Age bookstores.” The question, here of course is how Jungian analysis differs from other forms of sterility? Our rich symbolic tapestry may well be the thing that has led our culture to its present state. Perhaps real healing occurs when we reclaim our own lives from the pull of this symbolic diversion.
Hollis argues that “no one whether pope or potentate…has the authority to define what you experience as real for you.” Is this to say that when Rick says he sees a ghost in front of him and Mike says that he does not see a ghost that we should accept Rick’s vision as the first entrance into Kant’s noumenal realm? Should we then also say that death is not real because everything in the universe is just a swirling assemblage of energy and open space? We are after all, to use Hollis’s words, “a passing energy congruence.” What the real is cannot simply be reduced to a matter of taste.
When Hollis writes, “contrary to Sartre’s bon mot, Hell is not other people, it is ourselves” he is clearly wrong. Not because I may have had a taste for Sartre and French cigarettes but because it does not resonate with reality. It is easy to quoteMilton’s Satan who says, “ Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell”, but this should not be made into a universal truth. The one being tortured does not say, “ I myself am Hell.” The psychology proposed by the Jungians is one that best serves those like Alexander the Great who wept when he saw the Ganges River because, “there was no further world to conquer.” Hollis want to maintain, “the soul exists as an experience of autonomous energy wholly transcendent to consciousness.” No evidence is given of how this soul was created and where it dwells. Are we to believe that it lives in the gut where serotonin is produced?
Hollis writes, “before setting forth on the wine-dark sea Homer’s mariners respectfully entreated the beneficence of Poseidon who could so easily annihilate them.” While Hollis is critical of science for enabling “the last century to be the bloodiest in the long lamentable catalog of human butchery”, I do not see a return to myth as a solution. It is another leap into neurosis and naivety.
My problem with the Jungian approach or any other therapy is that it largely serves as a prop to help us navigate through the complexities of living. Like the adult who lives someone else’s life, so to therapy may give us a view to follow that may not be a legitimate explanation but another investment in fantasy. Hollis is correct to maintain, “no amount of right thinking or right conduct will spare us swampland visitations”, but right thinking can be a more reliable guide to action.
For the most part, I reject simple slogans such as “without loss we cannot fully accept the gifts we have been given” or “grieving is a celebration of the richness that life has brought us.” I think the opposite to be true. Grieving is a response to the sorrow that has been given us.
Hollis argues that much of our psychic problems arise because our “roots are severed from a deep mythic ground.” I believe that the falsity and lure of this deep mythic ground is the cause of many of our psychic problems. This deep mythic ground is a meta-narrative that does not take what I have experienced into account. Life may be nasty, brutish and short for Thomas Hobbes, but it may also be wonderful, pleasant and long for his neighbors. Why get caught up in the question of whether or not the goal of life is happiness or meaning. Life is not a goal. It is not teleology. It is I think learning how to live with what Yeats called, “the fire and mire of human veins.” We can still be astonished by life. We can take delight in how much we still have to know. We can affirm that the universe can be explained without regressing into mythical explanations.
It is obvious that enlightenment can only be found within the everyday. There is no outside of the day, or some place of permanence, a panic room where you can retreat to drown out the noise of samsaric assault. It is not as if you can jump out of your skin or leave it behind as you crawl forth into a new glittering transformation.
What we think we are is shattered daily. To be is not to think, but to be wounded. Here I agree with Michel Serres who writes, “the philosopher is the keeper of multiplicity.” He believes “the philosopher watches over these unforeseeable and fragile states, his site is unstable, mobile, suspended, the philosopher seeks to keep the breakup and forkings open, as opposed to those who close and unite them.” Serres argues, “the only true intellectual act is to invent.” Invention is the in-coming of the new. The university, he thinks, is the “great inhibitor of intelligence.” It seeks the imposition of a single tongue. In recent decades, this tongue only speaks the language of business or science. For Serres, this one tongue results in “the repetition of the same in all latitudes- an earth covered with screeching parrots.”
What would it mean to get off these Roman roads? We are very much still inRome, walled in by its conquests; being fed a diet of bread and circus. Serres shows us that the constructed is not landscape. The constructed is concrete. Landscape is the earth as it is. It is like Gandhi’s salt. What belongs to you cannot be taxed by a foreign empire posing as a benevolent dictator.
Does not all this speculation about meaning come from the wound of the severed thread; the place where we were once attached. The site that is scarred and knotted. The navel, the omphalos, the umbilical string that strings us along this quest to perhaps unravel the unknown.