Personal Accountability in Chaos

Personal Accountability in Chaos

An Interview With James Hollis, PhD

The Soul of a Bird, Alexandra Eldridge

James Hollis and Stephen Kiesling discuss Jung, accountability, and the stories we tell ourselves.

“Central to the agenda of the second half of life is the recovery of permission to really own your own life: to truly feel what you feel, desire what you desire, and to pursue whatever your soul wants you to pursue. For most people, that permission is still very conditional and very remote, and you can’t get it from someone else. It takes a realization: I have to seize my life because it is short—and I’m here to place my energies where my values really are. The current crisis presents an enormous opportunity for encountering oneself and granting that permission—if we can bear it.”

After 26 years as a humanities professor, James Hollis, PhD, entered training at the Jung Institute in Zurich in 1977 and became an analyst and then a professor of Jungian studies. Now 80, he continues his private practice and his teaching. Along the way, he has written 16 books that have been translated into 19 languages. Stephen Kiesling spoke with him about his latest book, Living Between Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times, via Zoom as he sheltered in place at his home in Washington, D.C.

Hollis James © Oxana Holtmann 2019 Copy
James Hollis © Oxana Holtmann

You’ve written many well-received books. Where do they come from?
My books have come out of my work with clients. Sometimes, even my own dreams will speak about those individuals, and I have to ask myself, “What was going on there? How do I understand that? How do I approach that?” 

For example, when I wrote my first book, The Middle Passage, I was freshly back from training in Switzerland and was seeing people with different issues and different histories.

But one thing they all had in common was that their understanding of self and world had played out. It was no longer effective—if it ever was. Their roadmap was no longer applicable to the territory in which they found themselves, and I thought, that’s what happens during a passage: Something has to die, and something else wants to emerge. You’re caught in that difficult in between.

Now, years later, that theme has come back. Living Between Worlds is about the world that no longer is efficacious and the world that has not yet been born. This is not a new idea: Matthew Arnold wrote in the 19th century, “We wander between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.” Another example is Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming:” “Things fall apart / the center cannot hold / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Something has played out—particularly in the Western world—and what we have is a bunch of cultural surrogates. The operative religion of modernism is materialism, the fantasy that if you can acquire enough objects, somehow life will be purposeful, meaningful, and satisfying. If that worked, we would know it by now. Another surrogate is a life of constant distraction, and we have to ask, what is it we’re distracting from?

I think the answer is the encounter with the reality and magnitude of our own souls. That kind of dialogue is not about withdrawing from the world. Quite the contrary. When I neglect that dialogue, I diminish my capacities in the world. I become a less present and available husband, a less functional father, a less effective citizen. So, it’s not selfish to dialogue with your own soul. It’s the best thing you can do for the world because it’s that dialogue that I bring to all of my relationships outside of me.

What brought you to Jung?
My initial encounter with Jung was very disappointing. He didn’t make sense to me at all. But, at midlife, I had a classic incursion from the unconscious in the form of a depression and started analysis with a Jungian in Philadelphia at age 35. Right on schedule, so to speak.

Two years later, I wound up going to Zurich to train as an analyst. At that time, I was a university professor in the humanities, and I was happy doing it, but I realized there was a certain kind of conversation with people that you could have with the second half of life that goes deeper and draws upon more areas of experience than are possible for an 18- or 19-year-old.

I’ve heard you say, “I am human. I believe nothing human is alien to me.” What does that mean?
That quote is actually from the Latin poet Terence, a little over 2,000 years ago. What it means is that we have to learn to accept and deal with the full range of our humanity. I’m not exempt from the normal fears and apprehensions and shadow issues of any other human being. It’s just that I find  myself needing to feel accountable for those things and to explore them. I want to understand why I might act in ways that don’t reflect the person I want to be—so that I become more accountable. Of course, the problem with the unconscious is that it’s unconscious. I cannot literally speak about it. And, yet, my unconscious keeps spilling into the world through me by my behaviors.

“Ultimately, I am what is wanting to enter the world through me, what is seeking expression through me. That is quite a different orientation from simply trying to live out the repetition of my stories.” 

Grace Credit Alexandra Eldridge Copy
Grace, Alexandra Eldridge

What’s a first step toward accountability?
One of the places to begin—if you can bear it—is simply to examine your patterns. We don’t rise up in the morning and say, “Today, I’m going to do the same stupid things I’ve done for a long time.” But there’s a good chance that we will. So you can start with examining those behaviors and those patterns and asking, “All right, what can account for that? Where is that coming from in me? What is that in service to in me?” And we began to realize that there’s a whole plethora of voices or energies— search engines if you will—that get triggered in the course of our daily experience that have the power to come up and act through us.

The younger our ego is—and by ego, I mean our sense of who we are consciously—the more we think we know ourselves and are in charge. In fact, the ego—the conscious self that I think of as the center of my being—is just a tiny wafer floating on a large ocean. The ego is easily overwhelmed, easily occupied, and disappears when I sleep. Meanwhile, there’s another

intelligence that’s governing our systems, digesting our food, mentating, responding emotionally, creating cells, and so forth, and what’s running all those operations is the organic wisdom of our own nature.

You write that one of the ways we experience addictive patterns is through routine.

Yes. Addiction doesn’t have to be drugs, or alcohol, or cigarettes. Addiction is what I do reflexively to lower the level of distress that I’m feeling—whether I’m aware of my doing it or not. I define addictions as reflexive anxiety management systems. We don’t think about them, we just do them. We usually pay attention to our addictive patterns only when their consequences began to pile up or we’re not able to do them as we normally do.

One of the addictive patterns we all have, myself included, is that we tend to impose patterns and order upon the raw chaos of life happening independently from our will. For example, people tend to get upset if the newspaper is late, or if the traffic is heavy and you’re going to be late for an appointment.

Now, of course, we’ve all been going through turmoil because of the virus. With regular life upended, we all have loose ends floating around. I think everyone has to say, “All right, what are my values? How do I sustain them in the presence of this encounter with a radical other over which I have no powers whatsoever?” It’s a time of enormous opportunity for encountering oneself—if we can bear it.

One of the things I love about your new book is you embrace complexity, as opposed to routine or staying in the same story. Could you speak about the evolution of our stories?
Sure. We are the meaning-seeking—meaning-creating— animal. Life happens, and we are the only creatures who try to understand it, make sense of it, experience meaning from it. And we suffer when we’re disconnected from meaning—whether we pay attention to it or not.

So we create stories. We are not aware that we’re doing it, but we “story” everything around us, starting with, “Can I trust the other? Is the other reliable, or is the other abandoning or invasive?”—whatever the case may be. That kind of story gets fixed within us and then leads to behavioral patterns later in life that often separate us from ourselves or separate us from others. You can get a sense of how we’re shaped by stories by looking at children from the same parents with very similar experiences—same cereal for breakfast—but who have quite different understandings of themselves and different operational systems because they’ve evolved different stories.

There’s another aspect to the evolution of our stories. Because we’re tiny and vulnerable, we have to start making tradeoffs with the world around us. “What do my parents want?” “What does the teacher want?” “What does my employer want?” “What does the government want?” With all of those tradeoffs, we will inevitably get separated from our own psychological reality.

Again, this is not a new recognition. Wordsworth wrote about it; he recollects what it was like to feel whole as a child and realizes that he can have a recovery project by sorting through the plethora of voices inside. We can learn which voices come from our own depth and which voices have been received from others.

One of the goals is to learn that I’m not what happened to me. I’m not a prisoner of my story. If I can find what is true for me and then find the courage to live it in the world—and do it over time, to persevere—then I get my life back. I won’t be free of conflict. I won’t be free of suffering. But I will feel the rightness of it because it’s experienced in a meaningful way.

Ultimately, I am what is wanting to enter the world through me, what is seeking expression through me. That is quite a different orientation from simply trying to live out the repetition of my stories.

When we think of Jung, we think of dreams. Where do dreams come from?
No one really knows where dreams come from, but one thing all of us would probably be able to agree upon is that nature doesn’t waste energy. And if we live to be 80 years old, we will have spent six years of our life dreaming. That’s an extraordinary amount of activity that goes on every night, whether people remember their dreams or not.

I think there are two purposes to dreams. The first is to metabolize the sheer magnitude of stimuli—the experiential debris if you will—that we accumulate in the course of any day. Our body pulls us into the unconscious in order to work through all that material.

The second purpose is to comment on it. The unconscious is not just a neutral processing machine; it’s a reactive agency with a certain wisdom. If we pay attention to our dreams—and sleep researchers tell us we average about six dreams per night—we realize they are somehow commenting on our life, albeit from a perspective wholly outside ego intention.

What intrigues me most of all is the extraordinary creativity of the human psyche. It’s unfathomable how a dream can pull somebody out of your third grade classroom, mix it with a television character that you may have seen yesterday, and be speaking about some developmental issue that you’re undergoing right now. From an ego standpoint, dreams often appear to us as arbitrary or bizarre or unfathomable. When we work with it, we begin to realize there’s a link here to our associations. As Jung said, it’s as if there’s a 2-million-year-old person inside of us that speaks with the wisdom of nature, not the information of conscious life.

Dreamwork alone would have brought me into this work of being an analyst. Your readers won’t necessarily believe it unless they’ve had the direct experience, but I could sit here and recite dreams I’ve heard from people that profoundly illumine what they’re going through, what needs to be addressed—dreams that produce life-changing encounters with the magnitude of their own soul.

“If we pay attention to our dreams we realize they are somehow commenting on our life, albeit from a perspective wholly outside ego intention.”

She Rises Credit Alexandra Eldridge Copy
She Rises, Alexandra Eldridge

What about spirituality? Where do we find the numinous now?
That’s a very good question. “Numinous” comes from a Latin verb that means “to nod or beckon.” So, the numinous is something that solicits your response. Now let’s just say the two of us walk into an art museum and you’re stopped in your tracks by a painting. It brings you to tears, for example, or it frightens you—yet I just pass by. For you, there was something numinous in that arrangement of colors on a canvas.

For me, it was not numinous. So the numinous is found wherever we are moved and touched— somehow activated psychically. That’s going to be different for different people. That’s why we have different tastes and different values, of course.

One of my favorite examples of the encounter with the numinous is the poem by Rilke called “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The speaker is looking at an ancient statue of Apollo and is moved that somehow, thousands of years ago, the human spirit entered the stone and rendered it alive. And as he’s looking at the statue and describing it, he realizes it’s as if the statue is looking at him, interrogating him, and then the poem breaks off and says in a kind of nonsequitur, “You must change your life.”

It’s a peculiar poem, but, to me, what Rilke suggests is that, for the observer of the statue, something there that was magnificent—something creative and timeless—was challenging him in his smallness. Suddenly he realizes he cannot bear to stay in his own small and comfortable life. Someone else would see the statue and be indifferent to it because the numinous was not there for them. Yet, for that observer, the statue demands that he change his life.

The numinous has to produce a resonance within us, which I think is one of the clues of one’s spirituality. You have to ask, what is it that really activates the spirit within me? For one person, it will be working with their hands; for another person, it’s a creative endeavor; for another, it’s an intellectual activity. It’s different for all of us. And one of the ways in which our life is meaningful is to experience the numinous in daily life, which I do in working with people and in the mystery of writing.

“You have to ask, what is it that really activates the spirit within me?”

Wisdom Credit Alexandra Eldridge Copy
wisdom, Alexandra Eldridge

Do congregations still serve a useful purpose?
That depends on the individual. A congregation or community is one of the spheres in which the numinous occurs, where each person is lifted out of his psychological and social isolation into a participation in something larger that links those individuals together. In those moments, there is a sense of participation in the mystery of being on this planet in a way that’s very resonant for people.

One thing we’ve seen is the decline of institutions capable of producing that sense of community. To the degree they can, they’re still effective. To the degree they can’t, they’ve been outlived in some way. Individuals have to have the courage and self-respect sufficient to ask, “Do my social

affiliations feed my spirit and enlarge my journey? Or are they in some way diminishing my journey or asking that I separate from who I really am?” That kind of question, if not asked, will pathologize in a person’s life unconsciously, whether they’re aware of it or not.

You write that our future doesn’t look promising and worry about coming barbarism. What should we do?
Before he passed away in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, Jung was very worried—and rightly so. He said the future of humankind hangs on the narrowest of threads, and that thread is the level of psychological development of the individual. That’s a very fragile tether—and that’s true now more than ever.

What we can do is realize we are accountable for our journey. We will have numerous things happen to us that push us in one direction or another, and we can spend a lot of our life blaming if we wish to. But in the end, we’re responsible for the patterns that unfold and the choices made. While that can be a huge burden, it’s also a huge invitation. In doing our work, we lift off of society and off of our relationships some of the burden that they otherwise would be carrying by our unconsciousness. None of us is fully conscious of anything at any given moment, but that’s the struggle. And accountability is the central task of each person in our time.

Read about overcoming the tyranny of victimhood with 100 percent accountability.

Living Between Worlds Cover Copy


We best live through times of change, loss, challenge when we live this journey as fully as we can, engaging both the sirens with their seductive distractions and the sea serpents with their intimidations as they rise from the spindrift of our lives; and, guided by our natural curiosity and longing, perhaps we may drop our plumb line into those same guiding currents that ran through the souls of the ancients, and run through ours as well. Why should we think on the one hand that our life should be any easier than theirs was?

Or why should we think we are not equipped by the gods with the same resources they had to find within themselves? Why should we think their journey obviates ours? Why should we think we are exempt from casting off from the familiar shore? Kierkegaard reminds us that merchant vessels hug the shore, but blue-water mariners open their orders on the high seas.

Are we afraid? Of course, remember only psychotics and the deluded are not. But since when is that an excuse for not showing up in life?

Do you feel alone? Yes, we all have this journey to make, this passage compelled by the opaque gods to all of us during times in-between. Only you can take your journey, only your path is right for you. Others have to find their way. But you must know there are many others on the same voyage, with similar wreckage behind as well, facing similar fears, and riddled with similar self-doubt. And still the open sea, the realm of the imaginally limitless beckons. All we can do is show up, grab an oar, do the best we can, and while alone, sail this same sibilant sea together. After we take up that oar, no matter the outcome, then we can say with that other voyager, Aeneas, “I have lived; I have finished the course Fortune set for me.” —James Hollis, PhD

From Living Between Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times, by James Hollis, published by Sounds True in June 2020

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