Living an Examined Life by James Hollis (2018)

, 18 May 2018

Although the world is full of people who will tell you who you are, what you are, and what you are to do and not to do, they wander amid their unaddressed confusion, fear, and need for consensual belief to still their own anxious journey (locs. 83-85).
The last book by Hollis is perhaps the most accessible didactic and approachable book he has ever written, and the one I would recommend to anybody who wants a shortcut to his work. In Living an Examined Life, Hollis has somewhat put aside his usual erudition, academic writing, psychologist jargon and complexity of thought, and made a serious effort to address those points of his discourse that I've always found a bit vague or difficult to understand for the lay reader. However, no sacrifice has been made regarding content, and you will still find his usual depth of thought, understanding of human suffering and nature, his compassion for human nature and weakness, his analysis of preconditioned inherited ancestral behaviour and complexes. There is, as usual in his work, a call to live our own live with purpose, taking responsibility for it, to honour our true nature and live authentic and genuine lives, to work vocationally because our vocation is the expression of our soul not just something we do doe fame, money, power and social accolades.

This book is is not a book with solutions to our problems, waw waw waw, but sound advice on how to overgrow them by changing our attitudes, behaviours and way of  seeing them, by going inside ourselves and taking responsibility for our deeds, and changing anything that stops us from being who we truly were born to be. It demands sitting with our discomfort and asking it which message is bringing to us. It demands from us doing what we fear the most, learning to love our unlovable parts and scrutinise our inherited values and decide which ones are meaningful to us. In a way, we are asked to become medieval-alike post-modern warriors, and go in search of the evil dragon inside us to free our true self.

The book is structured in twenty short easy-to-read chapters, which Hollis recommends reading one per day to let the material sink in. I did so, but, if you have read most of his books, I don't think that is necessary. Otherwise, by all means.

There are so many paragraphs and comments that really made the reading very fulfilling and satisfying to me. Herewith a few of them:

>> Chapters 10, What gift have you been withholding from the world? is beautifully profound, yet simple; it speaks to the soul without the need of calling any gods, and it is a call to authenticity and honouring our  true selves.

>> Although Hollis devoted a whole book to the Shadow, nothing comes nearly as clear to a definition as the one he provides in this book:
The shadow is not synonymous with evil, though great evil can surely come from our shadows. Rather, I would define the shadow as those parts of us, or of our groups and organizations, that, when brought to consciousness, are troubling to our concept of ourselves, contradictory to our professed values, or intimidating in what they might ask of our timid souls (locs 1379-1382). 
>> One of the things I have criticised Hollis for in the past is for his vague definition of Second Half of Life. Hollis does a great job at defining what that exactly means in this book:
The second half of life is not a chronological moment but a psychological moment that some people, however old, however accomplished, however self-satisfied in life, never reach. The second half of life occurs when people, for whatever reason — death of partner, end of marriage, illness, retirement, whatever — are obliged to radically consider who they are apart from their history, their roles, and their commitments. Every  (Locs. 402-405).
>> Hollis almost-utopian parenthood model is utterly beautiful, like a step ahead of our times, perhaps; something that, if I had children, I would try to implement so that my unborn children would be whatever they wanted to be, to shine their light or perhaps their inner crap without judgement, if that is even possible. My mother, an almost illiterate very traditional lady, very restrictive in many ways, always told me to do what would make me happy, and that despite her condition of submission to parental, fraternal and marital figures. That is the most empowering thing that my mother did for me.

>> Hollis' call to re-evaluate our life authorities is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of his work, and also one of the things that gives me the most comfort. It makes me realise that we all live in the same existential mess and forces me to be more compassionate with myself and others:  "Tiny in a world of giants, we reason that surely the world is governed by those who know, who understand, who are in control. How disconcerting it is then when we find our own psyches in revolt at these once protective adaptations, and how disillusioning it is to realize that there are very few, if any, adults on the scene who have a clue as to what is going on." (locs. 155-157). Growing up requires that we accept that no one out there knows what is going on, that they are as much at the mercy of their complexes and unconscious mechanisms as the least of us, and so now we must figure it out for ourselves. (locs 1699-1701).

>> Hollis munching about happiness is precious; he debunks happiness (the pop version), I know, I know, nothing we would like to hear when we are reading a book to help us with our problems. However, Hollis' focus on seeking meaning, instead of happiness, because that's more important for the soul. He says that meaning is an organ of the soul. Amen! But perhaps meaning is the new happiness.

>> Given the definition Hollis makes of Second Half of Life, I wonder why he and other psychologists keep using Second Half of Life, repeating something that, for what he says, it is totally imprecise and misleading. Why not turning the tables and using a clearer truer term, like, for example, True Maturity, True Adulthood or anything of the like? Second Adulthood, which he uses at times in the book is also misleading because some people only become adults after a crisis, so that is their first psychological adulthood no?  I know people in their 40s that are still as immature as their teenage selves and resist to grow no matter what happens to them.

>> I found myself munching about the following statement:
Virtually every client with whom I have worked over the last four decades has had to struggle mightily to find a personal path, a journey that is right for him or her. They all find their journeys impeded by parental limitations, pressures, and models.(locs. 1333-1335).
I wonder, if we have a true self that is specific and intrinsically us, call it our inner nature or character, compensate some of those impediments? I mean, obtrude our advance despite not having much baggage, or making us jump hurdles easily?

>> Regarding his ideal model of parenthood, I found myself questioning if different family structures and ways of relating, as those we see in different parts of the world (say, for example, Anglo-Saxon, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, West-African) can do this in different ways that are still healthy for the psyche but coming from different cultural backgrounds?  

>>  Hollis is very keen to remind us of the wonders of therapy and how therapy can change our life, but, as I have said in other reviews of his books, it is not possible for everybody wanting to grow up, evolve or resolve our problems to pay for therapy. I understand that Hollis does not want to spend his time to teach us something impossible, to become therapists by reading a book. However, I still think that he would be able to provide with a bit of more exercises to allow us to go inside and get more juice of his teachings. Just saying.

>> Hollis bluntly states that rites of passage are missing in our contemporary culture. I consider that true if we talk of passage rituals as seen in traditional cultures and the times of our elders. However, I consider some young people's wild behaviour as rites of passage, it is just that it does not come associated with meaning and an integration in society, these rites are mostly of separation from the nest and assertiveness of the self with regards to parental and authority figures.  On the other hand, women had rarely had rites of passage in traditional cultures, as the rites of passage were for men and those traditions considered women like second-class humans, souls and brains. So, in a way, many women have only male rituals of passage to imitate. I wonder whether young women behaving wildly, as wild as men, these days are just taking on passage rites that once were male because they don't have a substitutive that brings power and meaning to their lives. On the other hand, I also wonder whether we have new female passage rites, meaningful and specific to the needs of women, aren't just also a passage rite for many women. I don't mean any fanatic feminism, I mean real meaningful feminism, the one that allowed women to vote, get equal salary, and be able to access jobs that were just only allowed to men, and so on. I would love to hear Hollis thoughts on this. You are welcome :)

Living an Examined Life is a book easy to read, meaningful, thoughtful and very comforting, but also a bit repetitive and impractical at times. Not a book with cookie-cutter solutions or rosy advice. I can only say that I always come back to my highlights of this book when I have a bad day, feel awkward for being myself, and find myself immersed in misery and stuck in ways of being that I know don't work for me. Hollis is ready waiting for me, with a hug to comfort me, a whisper to my ears to wake me up, and slap on the face for me to react to. Are you up to the task? For whatever reason, I think this book is especially suited to introverts, who are naturally seekers of introspection and depth.    

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