The Art of Living in Uncertain Times

A Conversation with James Hollis

Photograph by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

America is in transition, morally, economically, and socially.  We’re facing globalization and climate change, racial injustice and economic inequality.  This is producing a high level of fear and anxiety, an increasing dread that these problems are too big for us and we are no longer in control of daily life. The question is, how can we cope with this period of chaos and reorganization? How is it calling us to stretch and grow?

Our guest is James Hollis, who taught humanities for 26 years before becoming a Jungian analyst.  He lives and works in Washington, DC, and is the author of 16 books on depth psychology and finding meaning in modern life.  His most recent is Living Between Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times.  

In this conversation, we consider what literature has to teach us about our values and major turning points; the benefits of enforced solitude; and C.G. Jung’s advice on how to counteract the stress of modern life.  Listen to our podcast or read the full transcript below. 

America has been dealing  with the pandemic and economic downswing, long-standing problems of racism and social  injustice, and each of these has rocked the nation to its core, and left us with more questions  than  answers about our own behavior. 

You’re talking about how  the current crises in our culture have called into question all the answers that we had about life. Well, actually, that’s a pretty good thing. It’s disconcerting to ego consciousness, of course,  because it undermines our sense of security and our sense of control. But we need to be  questioning our relation to the environment. We need to be questioning our relationship to  minorities. We need to be questioning our institutions and our political system.  I always  think  questions are better than answers, and underneath all of these is really a summons to a larger  accountability.  I have this question, “Is America going to grow up and be accountable for its  history, be accountable  for its economic policies and be accountable for the vast divisions that lie  between so many of our people?” I see it as an enormous invitation and a threatening invitation. But perhaps history is making it necessary for us.

The truth is, most of the moments where we grew most were moments of conflict, perhaps loss, even crisis and perhaps suffering. There’s an old medieval  saying that suffering is the fastest horse to completion, and not that we wanted or invited, but it still  happens. And I think, in our own time, the bankruptcy of the things you’ve mentioned, materialism,  hedonism, narcissism and so forth, is so patently obvious. And so, that necessarily leads us to  questions like, “Well, what really does matter? What abides amid all of these changes and so forth?”  And I consider this a healthy shakeup, albeit an uncomfortable one, in which people are invited to consider what really matters to them.

James Hollis

In your new book, you say that literature can help us cope. How?

Well, first of all, literature represents an effort to explore what’s going on inside a person from the beginning.

In a sense, the first psychologists are the artists. They, in some way, engage the images that emerge from their own depths, and dialogue with them, and produce some  kind of conversation, whether it’s in painting, or music, or writing, that allows us to gain some kind of access to what’s going on inside. 

Jung said once, he was swarming with the materials of the unconscious in his own midlife crisis and he said, “Until I could grab hold of an image that  emerged from the depths, I couldn’t dialogue with it, I couldn’t make it conscious.” So he said that the image was the key, the point of entry, the aperture, into some understanding of what was going  on inside of me. And so it is with all of the great arts and in particular, literature as well.

How do you think literature gives us a better understanding of history and of our changing times? 

If you want to know what’s happening in today’s headlines, frankly, you can read it in the ancient scriptures, you can read it in the Greek tragedies.  You can read it in the myths of ancient peoples. Human nature has not changed at all, technologies change, social practices have changed, and values have changed, but the human psyche is  very much the same.  Jung said, “If you really want to know what’s going on in the unconscious, you examine myths.” And again, myth is  the sort of conscious expression of the energies and the formative sources that are rising from  within people. So we can say that so many things that happen in our time are shocking, but they  shouldn’t be surprising, if one is a student of history.

You make Sophocles come wonderfully alive as you focus on Antigone.  I’m wondering why you feel her story has a message for us today.

As many of your listeners will recall, she was caught between loyalty to her brother, her family, and the gods,  and her loyalty to the state.  And when her brother is in rebellion against the established order, as embodied by King Creon, and is killed, she has the very understandable idea that she’s going to bury her brother according to the appropriate rites, when, in fact, he’s been considered an enemy of the state. She’s told, in a sense, you have to choose what your highest value is. Those are painful and difficult choices, and she literally pays with her life in that play, as we know.

This is the kind of decision that people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to make too, when he had his, on one hand, his pacifism and  Christian values to defend, and on the other hand, he was living in the Nazi regime. What is my  highest calling in circumstances like that?

I’m thinking of another example.  The mothers in Portland putting their bodies and their lives on the line for Black Lives Matter and racial equality. There’s a very strong sense of Antigone when you look at these walls of women on the news.


Wall of Moms, protesting for Black Lives Matter in Portland, WA, July 2020. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have to say I’ve been deeply moved by that, because you’re right, they are putting their bodies on the line. They’re also bearing witness to the fact that sometimes you have to stand for a value and you have to pay a  price. And if you’re not willing to do that, it’s not much of a value, or maybe you’re not much of a  person.

What I loved was the fathers who showed up with leaf blowers.  If tear gas was released on the crowd, they were going to blow it away.  The men formed a circle of protection around these women, saying, “We’re here to support you.”

Yes, yes. Well, you could also call that American ingenuity, really. [laughter]

I want to turn next to Hamlet. You talk about him as a guy who’s stuck between fight or flight. His main setting is on freeze—he can’t make a decision. How do we experience Hamlet’s emotional stuckness today

Well, it’s been argued, and I would concur with this, that Hamlet is perhaps the first truly modern character in Western literature, and the reason being that Hamlet is faced with a  dilemma. 

He knows that he’s summoned by the Danish state and his own morality is to avenge his father’s murder and he would be approved for doing that. And on the other hand, he’s got forces within that he doesn’t fully understand.  The reason Hamlet is so  modern is he understands, “I am my own problem.” He even says, “Till my resolution is sicklied  over with the pale cast of thought and lose the name of action.”

Now, that’s a perfect description of a complex. We have an intention, but something invisible reaches up and shuts us down. We all have stuck places where to move forward causes an unacceptable level of anxiety which we may or may not know about, but it still has the power to veto our forward motion. So he’s a person who understands that he can’t appeal to others,  he can’t appeal to the gods, he has to figure it out for himself, and in the end he has to push through  the dilemma and act.

By Pedro Américo - Visão de Hamlet.jpg, Public Domain,

Antigone is caught between two outer value systems. Hamlet is caught between two dueling complexes, if you will.  He’s the subject, as you know, of so many psychological  theories through the years. Ernest Jones, one of the disciples of Freud, wrote a very  interesting book on Hamlet and Oedipus, and that’s a story in itself.

Hamlet is a  predecessor to the modern individual, who says, “I know what I need to do, but for reasons I don’t  know, I can’t do it.” And we all have that issue within us.

I’m wondering how that’s playing out during the pandemic. We all feel called to do something, and yet there is some psychic numbing or personal exhaustion saying, “Wait. Wait and see what happens next before you act.” 

I think this is the first time in American experience since World War II that every household has been touched and every single individual on this continent is in some form of threat.  Now, we’ve had other national events, like the disaster of the Challenger or 9/11, but for many people, it is that thing that happened out there. This is something that touches everyone, and again, it has a potential for life ­or ­death consequences.

I think this has been a real call to awareness. What we’ve seen here is an elusive enemy who slips away from all of our assumptions and instruments,  and bankruptcy of our system.  And rather than being the world leader, we have managed this very poorly. And I think it’s an occasion for people reframing their sense of self and world, and reframing our national story. All of these experiences we’re talking about, I think are humbling to the American culture, and that’s a good thing because there’s a little too much rah-rah and too little  accountability for what really does work in our country. 

The other piece of that, of course, is the enforced isolation. I’ve just finished eight hours of analysis with folks, and the number one topic for the last five months, as you might well expect, is the difficulties of coping with economic worries and feelings of boredom and listlessness and drift and malaise and floating depressions and so forth. And in a new way, I think more and more Americans are invited to a conversation with their own souls, and it’s not necessarily a healthy relationship. And this is a culture that prides itself on its distractions, and a lot of those distractions like sports events and picnics and family reunions and travel, are now constricted. 

And so more and more folks have had to find their own resources. And there is a  large number of people who found new sources of creativity and new sources of activity and interest they wouldn’t have known about heretofore.

It’s almost like we’ve gone back into a pre-digital age in terms of solitude.  That’s definitely a plus even though it’s been extremely difficult.

There’s an old saying that the cure for loneliness is solitude. In solitude, you are present to yourself, and therefore you’re never wholly alone. The real question is posed by Jung,  where he said, “We all need to find what supports us  when nothing supports us.”  A lot of people found that their work schedule, their busyness at the office, and what I call their plugins to family and friends and other activities—once those are  removed, that energy inverts as a depression. Now, what are you going do with it? That’s the key. Can you tolerate being with yourself? 

A lot of this has to do with the smallness of daily life. One who  addressed that beautifully was T.S. Eliot in Prufrock. A longs for meaning and yet feels his life is measured out in teaspoons. 

Most men have lost contact with their souls a long time ago and, trust me, I spend a lot of time in those conversations. I put it this way, in talking with women’s groups. 

Imagine three things.

First of all, you have to cut away your friends, the people you really share your intimate life with, your thoughts about your marriage, your children, your body,  your worries. Those people are out of your life forever. 

Secondly,  sever your link to whatever you consider your guidance center, call it your instinct, your intuition, whatever.

And thirdly, your worth as a person will depend largely on your proving your productivity and meeting certain abstract standards or goals set by total strangers.

Oh, that is such a painful image. It’s a life most women can’t imagine.

Well, that’s the point. And women have said, Oh my God, that’s awful. How horribly lonely. And the truth is, that is the plight of 90% of men, I would say. Even while surrounded by people and even with loving families.

A big topic in the 2016 election was men who work in the mines or work with their hands. I’m worried we’ve lost respect for men who fix, repair, and build things. 

Thomas Hart Benton, City Building

I agree that we have been overvaluing the abstract thinking function. We’ve moved predominantly into education, healthcare, which are important, and of course, data processing. And where does that leave the work of hands and the essential dignity of the person digging the ditch and working in the coal mine? 

My grandfather died in a coal mine as an immigrant. He had no choice in life but to take the only job he could get, but you’re actually right, the work of hands is part of how we connect to nature, to each other, it’s part of how people serve their culture, their families.

I think that’s what Jung got, too, at Bollingen, working in stone and building the tower at his country retreat.

That’s right.  The tower he built was without electricity, and he lived there deliberately as a 14th century person with candlelight and he would get water from a well and that sort of thing.  He actually hated the telephone and said, “Notice what a tyrant it is. You can be  involved in a meditation or in the deepest conversation with a person, the tyrant  rings, and there you go. As Rilke wrote in the beginning of the century, the world we’ve created is not much of a home for us.

Are any psychological insights that might apply to this end of an era?

We become prisoners of that to which we are attached, that’s the paradox.

Jung said encounters with the Self, capital S are usually felt as a defeat for the ego. What does that mean? The ego is a necessary capacity we have to interface with the external world, but it’s also a little tyrant. And it wishes to have what it wants when it wants it. That’s where materialism, hedonism and narcissism arises. How do I entertain myself and  and make my life pleasant? and so forth, which are not per se federal crimes, but it’s our  assumption that that’s the role of life that makes it harder for people to age and harder for  them to deal with change and with loss.  

The German word for serenity is gelassenheit, and it means the condition of having let go.

So what things do you think we need to be brave enough to let go of as a culture? 

One of the chief American fantasies is that we’re supposed to be happy. I have nothing against happiness, but happiness as a goal ultimately trivializes a person’s life. Happiness is a momentary experience of being in right relationship to your own soul. When you’re doing what is truly right for your soul, not necessarily for the world around you,  you’re flooded with that feeling called happiness and happiness rises out of the strangest places. 

For example, I don’t enjoy being a therapist and listening to people’s suffering, hour after hour, but I find it profoundly meaningful. I can’t imagine doing anything else. So I would rather say, meaning is something that’s worth committing your life to, because it has staying power, and when it doesn’t have staying power, alright, then move on and find out which does, because that is a sure relationship, I think, to your own soul.

The root of the word suffer also means to allow. If we don’t allow ourselves to contemplate the life and death span of our culture or our individual existence how can we move forward in any meaningful way? 

Oh, absolutely. The ego will never be thrilled with death, but on the other hand, as Wallace Stevens said, “Death is the mother of beauty,” it’s what makes us appreciate what is transient, it’s what provides our life with meaning. Because if we weren’t mortal you’d be like the idle rich, where there’s nothing more to do, except kill time.

I’m wondering if the unconscious doesn’t call us to account by giving an enormous problem for each generation. My grandparents, for example, lived through the first world war and then the 1918 flu epidemic, and my parents lived through the Great  Depression, another world war, and the birth of the atomic bomb.

My parents, too, went through the depression and the war and anyone who did was profoundly changed, and I think, in a good way, humbled by it. They didn’t take certain things for granted because they realized how provisional and how contingent they really were.  I do think we as Americans have ridden high in the saddle for a long time and haven’t had to feel accountable for the world and for our own values because there’s always tomorrow. 

There’s something to be said for optimism, at the same time, a naive optimism means you ignore the reality of the world around you, so the world has to come to us, and surprise, surprise! What has not been faced inwardly, as Jung pointed out,  will tend to spill into the world, and in some way, we played a role in it.

I’m curious what book you’re reading now, what story gives you strength.

I’m starting the Hillary Mantel volumes on Thomas More and Henry VIII.  That’s a formidable mountain to climb, but I  believe it’s going to be valuable—because what we see, in different garb,  is the timelessness of the human psyche. 

The Field of Cloth of Gold. When Henry VIII met Francis the two monarchs engaged in a lavish duel of gift-giving. to prove which monarch was wealthiest and strongest of the two.

The power of reading is something that I learned as a child,  because I grew up in really impoverished circumstances, and my parents were really crushed by that depression and lack of education.  My father was pulled out of eighth grade and sent to work for the rest of his life. For me, teachers and books were my heroes, because they opened points of entry into a larger world. I thought there is a  larger world, and there are some things to see and to explore out there, and I remain deeply grateful to all of them.

If you had to give a reason for optimism as we go through this next period of major change what would you say?

People ask about the future, and I don’t think  anyone knows about the future, the new myth. The new organizing images will rise  from the unconscious at one level. If they don’t, then frankly, we’re going to be at the mercy of images created in laboratories and by computerized programs and so forth.

The better hope for the future is the core resilience of the human spirit. 

If we do what is right for us, something inside of us supports us. We have elemental systems that nature has given us, and we knew it as children but because we were tiny, vulnerable and dependent, we had to trade them off to adapt.  And that includes the feeling function. We don’t choose our feelings, but feelings are a qualitative analysis of how our life is going.  We can reject our feelings, anesthetize  them, and ignore them, but they tell us something. And feelings occur before our thoughts occur about  them.

Secondly, we have energy systems. When you’re doing what’s right for you, the energy is there, you feel that flow.  So in a sense, the key to what really is important for you to pursue is what energizes you. 

Thirdly, we have dreams that are commenting upon our lives on a daily basis. I’m 80 now, and if you live to be 80, six full years of your life will have been spent dreaming. Think of that! That’s an extraordinary amount of activity in the psyche. Nature doesn’t waste energy. I think part of that is assimilating the magnitude of data and stimuli that come to us on a daily basis, but part of it, for sure, is our own larger self reflecting upon our life and commenting.  If you pay attention, it can be a profoundly meaningful engagement.

And fourthly and most important is this issue of meaning, which is unique to each of us. You can’t trade it for somebody else’s meaning. You have to find what really your life is asking of you and engage in some kind of conversation. I’ve often said to people in therapy, this is not about pathology, this is about a deepened conversation around the meaning of your life’s journey and that will be the most interesting conversation you’ll have in your lifetime. And out of that comes the quality of your relationship to other people.

There’s a paradox here that no relationship with any other, whether it’s an intimate relationship or a relationship with a group of people, can be any more evolved than my relation to myself. So where I’m stuck, where Hamlet’s stuck, where  Prufrock is stuck, my relations will be stuck. 

Well, you’re talking about an inner ecology. If we can learn how to be stewards of  our own psyches, we can be  better stewards of the culture.

That’s right. Again, thinking about the sequestering experience, many  people have been invited to that in a new way because they don’t have the distractions. Blaise Pascal said in the 17th century, the chief problem for humanity is people’s inability to sit with themselves for very long in their own private chambers.  That’s extraordinary.  If I can’t tolerate myself, how can I tolerate someone else?

We all know too, what I want to deplore in myself, or I want to deny in myself, I’ll be looking for in my neighbor. That’s an old idea, the projection of my shadow onto others.

Another element to our divisiveness, though, is there have been major dislocations and changes in our economic structures,  and many people feel—and I have deep sympathy for this—that the future does not include them.

On the other hand, I also understand that all of us, to some degree, might say we want things to change, but when change comes, it unsettles the ego’s security agenda very easily. So the future belongs to those who can move with those changes and not against them.

Thank you for this description of what’s ahead, how we can begin to cope with it and feel more comfortable with ourselves as we do. Anything you’d like to add

The first half of life, we all have to deal with the question, what does the world want of me? And can I develop enough ego strength and resources to deal with it? 

The second half is really a different question, and that is, What is the soul wanting of me? What is wanting to come through me into the world? And that’s not about being comfortable, that’s not about fitting in, it’s about serving something that makes your life worth the journey. If we don’t do that, somehow that whole journey has been sabotaged on behalf of fitting in or our ego comforts. And however understandable that may be, that’s a terrible deformation.

Jung put it this way. He said our job’s not to fit in, it’s to be eccentric. It’s not to fit in,  because if you fit in too easily, you have had to hone away the edges that make you you. It’s not in an adolescent sense of rebellion, it’s more about your peculiarities as part of what brings the richness back to the world.

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