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 now.

The truth is, the moments where we grew most were moments of conflict, perhaps of loss, even crisis, and perhaps, of suffering. There’s an old medieval  saying that suffering is the fastest horse to completion—not that we want it or invite it, but it still  happens. And I think, in our own time, the bankruptcy of the things you’ve mentioned—materialism,  hedonism, narcissism—is patently obvious. And so, that leads us to  questions like, “What abides amid all of these changes?”  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?

Literature represents an effort to explore what’s going on inside a person from the beginning.

In a sense, artists and writers were the first psychologists. They engage the images that emerge from their own depths, and dialogue with them, producing 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 us. 

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

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, you can read the scriptures or the Greek tragedies–or 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 should examine myths.” Again, myth is  a conscious expression of the energies that are rising from  within.  So many things that happen in our time seem shocking, but they  shouldn’t be, if one is a student of history.

You make Sophocles come 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.  When her brother rebels against the established order, as embodied by King Creon, he is killed. Antigone, understandably, want to  to bury him with the appropriate rites, when, in fact, he’s 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 as we know, she pays with her life.

I’m thinking of 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’s presence — when we look at these walls of women demonstrating, on the evening news.


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

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

I want to turn next to Hamlet. You talk about him as a guy who’s stuck between “fight or flight.”  How do we experience Hamlet’s emotional stuckness today

Well, it’s been argued that Hamlet is the first truly modern character in Western literature. Hamlet is faced with a  dilemma. He summoned by the Danish state and his own morality is to avenge his father’s murder and he know knows he would be approved for doing so. On the other hand, he’s struggling with forces within that he doesn’t fully understand.  The reason Hamlet is so  modern is that he knows, “I am my own problem.” He says, “And thus the native hue of 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. And times where to move forward causes an unacceptable level of anxiety that has the power to veto forward motion. Hamlet understands that he can’t appeal to others,  he can’t appeal to the gods, he has to figure it out for himself. In the end he has to push through his dilemma and act.

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

Antigone is caught between two outer value systems. But Hamlet is caught between two dueling complexes.  He’s been the subject of  many psychological treatises through the years. (Ernest Jones, one of Freud’s disciples, wrote a very  interesting book on Hamlet and Oedipus, but 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 understand, 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, and every single individual on this continent, is facing 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 it has life ­or ­death consequences.

This has been a real call to awareness. What we’ve seen is an elusive enemy who slips away from all of our assumptions,  along with the  bankruptcy of our system.  And rather than being the world leader in this time, we have managed things very poorly. I think the pandemic has been an occasion for people reframing their sense of self and world and reframing our national story, as well.  All of these experiences we’re talking about 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 enforced isolation. I’ve just finished eight hours of analysis with folks, and the number-one topic for the last five months has been, as you might well expect, the difficulty of coping with economic worries and feelings of boredom and listlessness,  drift and malaise, floating depressions and so forth. I think more and more Americans are being invited to a conversation with their own souls, and finding that it’s not necessarily a healthy relationship. 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.  So folks have had to find their own resources. A  large number of people have found new sources of creativity  and interests.

It’s almost like we’ve gone back into a pre-digital age in terms of solitude.  

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.  T.S. Eliot addressed that theme in Prufrock. A man 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 notion. 

Well, that’s the point.  Women have said, “Oh my God, that’s awful. How horribly lonely.” The truth is, that is the plight of 90% of men. Even while surrounded by loving families.

A big topic in the 2016 election was men who work in the mines or work with their hands.  Are we losing 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 experienced 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 meditation or in the deepest conversation with a person, the tyrant  rings, and there you go. As Rilke noted at the beginning of the last 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 are usually felt as a defeat for the ego. What does that mean? The ego is a necessary thing —we need it 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 come in. How do I entertain myself and make my life pleasant?  These are not federal crimes, but our assumption that this the goal of life makes it harder for people to age and harder for them to deal with change and loss.  

The German word for serenity is gelassenheit, and it means the condition of letting 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.  Happiness arises out of the strangest situations. 

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 say, meaning is worth committing your life to, because it has staying power. When it doesn’t then move on and find out what does, because that is a sure way to be in relationship with 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? 

The ego will never be thrilled with death, but on the other hand, as Wallace Stevens said, “Death is the mother of beauty.”  It makes us appreciate things that are transient, it provides our life with meaning.  If we weren’t mortal we’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 lived through the first world war and the 1918 flu epidemic, and my parents 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.  I grew up in impoverished circumstances, and my parents were really crushed by the 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. They showed me there are 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?

I don’t think anyone knows about the future, the new myth. The new organizing images will arise from the unconscious. 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 lies in 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 this as children.  But because we were tiny, vulnerable, and dependent, we had to turn them off to adapt.  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 our own 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 this point,  you will have spent six full years of your life dreaming. Think of that! That’s an extraordinary amount of activity in the psyche. Nature doesn’t waste energy. I think part of that activity is assimilating the magnitude of data and stimuli that come to us on a daily basis, but another part is our own larger self reflecting upon our life.  If you pay attention, dreaming can be a profoundly meaningful engagement.

And fourthly and most important is a sense of of meaning, which is unique to each of us. You can’t trade yours 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 a deepening conversation around the meaning of your life’s journey and it be the most interesting conversation you’ll have in your whole lifetime. And out of that comes the quality of your relationship to other people.”

There’s a paradox here: No relationship, whether it’s an intimate relationship or a relationship with a whole group of people, can be any more evolved than my relation to myself. So where I’m stuck, my relations will be stuck. 

Well, you’re talking about an ecology of relationship. 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 by 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 how to feel more comfortable with ourselves.  Is there 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?  Can I develop enough ego strength and resources to deal with it? 

The second half is really a different question, and that is, What does the soul want of me? What wants to come through me into the world? 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 get been sabotaged on behalf of fitting in or comforting the ego.

Jung put it this way. He said our job is not to fit in, it’s to be eccentric. If you fit in too easily, you have had to hone away the edges, the things that make you you. I’m not talking about an adolescent rebellion—seeing your peculiarities brings the richness back into the world.

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