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What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life

Pohsuan Zaide  talks to Jungian analyst and author James Hollis about living a considered life.

In a telephone interview with well-regarded Jungian analyst and author James Hollis, from Houston, I spoke to him about his new book, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life. I asked him about the all too prevalent contemporary phenomenon of folks feeling like exiles from their own lives.  

He answered that one of the issues of midlife that arises for so many of us is the disturbance that results from not having followed our own internal guidance systems. Some may say, “Well I’ve done all the things I’ve supposed to do and why does it not feel ok inside?” or “I’ve followed the roadmap and it continuously seems to be troubling and difficult and contradictory for me?” 

Many of us have been thrown “off-center” by the unquestioning adoption of values of our family, culture or society; we live with a sense of tension, as if everything looks all right but feels all wrong, until something from our psyches, or souls, push up to become some kind of pathology such as depression or anxiety, explained Dr. Hollis. The key to addressing these issues is to pay attention to them, to examine their underlying message, and to reorient ourselves to living values more congruent with who we really are. 

Dr. Hollis’ lifework has been based on the teachings of Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. He explained that Jung’s concept of individuation is not so much a question of individualism, but rather a movement towards becoming whole, becoming who we truly are – the embodiment of a unique set of values and priorities, gifts and talents that each person comes into the world with. It is the achievement of this authenticity that is the single greatest gift each of us has to give to our families, society, and the world. 

It is true that modern life is full and fast; in all except for the spiritual realm, most of us in the developed world are living better and longer than our ancestors did before the industrial revolution. Yet, emptiness prevails within persons, and socio-cultural, economic and political divisions are rampant. The role of traditional religion in providing guidance for questions of meaning and purpose of life has been overshadowed by the complexity and extensiveness of the issues we currently struggle with. Religious dogma or cultural paradigms that have traditionally served as containment mechanisms no longer work for many to alleviate their existential anxiety. Therefore, we must look towards depth psychology for guidance, Hollis suggested. This is why Jungian teachings are highly relevant for modern times. 

Hollis added, “The human ego, which is who we think we are at any given moment is actually a very fragile wafer on a very large sea; it protects itself by trying to establish security zones and that’s understandable...[but] our contemporary cultural situation is one of great division in the world, and within societies, within religious and ethnic groups and so forth, and that animosity comes primarily out of our fear of the otherness of the other. The paradox is that the greatest gift that relationship can bring is the otherness of the other, and yet it’s that which occasions ambiguity in us. We want the other to think, feel, believe and act as we do. When they don’t, it feels, rather than an invitation to enlargement, it’s an anxiety-provoking situation. So that’s what leads to fundamentalism in religions, that’s what leads to rigidity in our personality structures. The embrace of ambiguity is really what gives us our journey. It’s what opens us to enlargement. We live really qualitative lives based on the magnitude of the questions we live, and easy answers are going to be available only for easy questions. The most important ones are going to have an enormous amount of ambiguity to them.” 

Hollis also spoke of the “gift of our lives” but cautioned that the personal journey is fraught with discomfort, and perhaps even danger. He points out that being authentic means we may be called upon to give up our sense of comfort, to “choose or risk growth over security”, and to relinquish the approval of others. We owe it to ourselves to make the most of our lives. “The greatest danger of all is not to have lived it, to be blocked by disabling messages from others, or to have not stepped into that largeness that life asks of us,” Hollis added. 

Regarding the issues of life and death, Hollis suggested that the question is really less about death, and more about how we are living and what values we decide to embrace in the face of our mortality. He poignantly stated that “There are many ways of dying, and a careful, timid life is one that will ensure an early death. We can die before our body dies.” 

What Matters Most is a deeply-satisfying read, full of thoughtfulness, vision, and wisdom. It does not provide trendy self-help clichés and is not a menu of quick fixes to the troubling problems and conflicts of life. Instead, James Hollis gently suggests that we might consider some questions, be mindful of our histories, accumulated values and priorities so that life might become more interesting, that we might meet our own depths and in this process become more of who we are. Our personal growth and transformations then contribute to the greater health of our culture and our society. 

Dr. Hollis will be in town on October 16th and 17th to promote this book at events sponsored by the C.G. Society of Vancouver. For information about the Hollis lecture and workshop, please email [email protected] or visit the C.G. Jung Society of Vancouver page on 

© Pohsuan Zaide, 2009

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