James Hollis “Living an Examined Life. Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey.” Sounds True, 2018.
“We are flung from the amniotic sea into this life – tied to matter, to gravity, to mortality. A fire burns in each of us, a tungsten intensity that flares and flames awhile and then departs. From whence and whither to remain mysteries. And who we are on this planet, and for what purpose, remains a mystery as well. 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.
Whether you show up as you in this brief transit we call life or are defined by history, or context, or shrill partisan urgencies substantially depends on you. No greater difficulty may be found than living this journey as mindfully, as accountably, as we can, but no greater task brings more dignity and purpose to our lives. Swimming in this milky sea of mystery, we long to make sense of things, figure out who we are, wither bound, and to what end, while the eons roll on in their mindless ways. It falls then to us to make sense of this journey.
So what could be more obvious than point one: the choice is ours. And yet, is it? We survive in this life by adaptation. We learn from our world – families of origin, popular culture, world events, religious training, and many other sources – who we are, what is acceptable, what is not, and how we have to behave, perform, in order to fit in, gain approval from others, and prosper in this world into which we were thrust. Historically, all cultures have claimed that their values, their institutions, their marching orders come from the gods, sacrosanct scriptures and venerated institutions. These ‘givens’ are laden with presumptive powers and punitive sanctions for transgressions of any kind. A child raised today in the world of virtual reality and video games is just as susceptible to these acculturating and directive images. We become too often a servant of our environment, given our need to fit in, receive the approval of others, stay out of harm’s way.
When I was a child in the 1940s, for example, there were pretty clear social definitions of gender, of social and economic class, of racial, ethnic, religious identity, and defined acceptable choices. To deviate from these prescriptive templates was to trigger sanctions of enormous proportion. The most common socializing sentence my contemporaries and I heard was, ‘What would people think?’ A familiar proverb in Japan declares, ‘It is the protruding nail that gets hammered.’ In the face of such sanctioning power, what child does not begin to adopt the prejudices of his family and tribe, fear the alien values of others, and stick close to home in almost every way?
Since the 1940s and ‘50s, all of those categories, reportedly created by the gods themselves, have been deconstructed. While sex is biologically driven, gender is socially construed, and constricting definitions for men and women then have proved still another of the many frangible fictions. Today we know that the range of choices for any of us is infinitely greater. We know that all races are mixed, that genetically we track back to a few progenitors in central Africa. We know that religions are mostly mythosocial constructs that arise out of tribal experiences that are institutionalized to preserve and to transmit, and that the ontological claims of one tribe are no better, really, than the mythosocial constructs of other tribes. We know further that social practices, ethical prescriptions, are subjective value percepts and have no authority outside our tribe. Such a thought would have led any of us to the stake in an earlier era, and still will in many quarters. When an idea occurs as an alternative, forces within the psyche rise to combat it, for our egos are very insecure and prefer clarity, authority, and control at all costs.
To say that any of us has a choice, really, is still a dubious statement. While we celebrate social license, revel in eccentricity, and accept changing social structures, reports from the behaviorists and the neurologists and the geneticists narrow the window of freedom more and more. In fact, the older I get, the narrower that window has become, despite having spent a life in education, in study, travel, and reflection. The powers of the unconscious cannot be underestimated. Our ego consciousness – namely, who we think we are, or what we believe real – is at best a thin wafer floating on an iridescent sea. In any moment, we view the world through a distorting lens and make choices based on what the lens allows us to see, not what lies outside its frame.
The more conscious we become, the more we become aware of unconscious influences working upon our daily choices. Why did you make that choice and not another at a critical juncture in your life? Why hook up with that person? Why repeat those family-of-origin patterns? These are disconcerting questions, but unless we ask them, we remain at the mercy of whatever forces are at work autonomously within us. These confrontations with the ego’s fantasy of sovereignty are truly intimidating, but they remain a summons to greater awareness. How haunting is Carl Jung’s observation that whatever is denied within us is likely to come to us in the outer world as fate? (That thought alone keeps me at this work.)
I am not in any way suggesting that our cultural values, our religious traditions, our communal practices are wrong; that is not for me to judge. Many of those values link us with community, give us a sense of belonging and guidance in the flood of choices that beset us daily. I am saying, however, that the historic powers of such expectations, admonitions, and prohibitions are to be rendered conscious, considered thoughtfully, and tested by the reality of our life experience and inner prompting. No longer does received authority – no matter how ratified by history, sanctioned by tradition – automatically govern. We are rather called to a discernment process. We are summoned to ask such questions as: Does this align with or make sense of my experience? If not, it may be well intended and right for someone else, but it is not right for me. Does this value, practice, or expectation take me deeper into life, open new possibilities or relationship, and accord with the deepest movements of my own soul? If not, then it is toxic, no matter how benign its claim. Does this value, practice, or expectation open me to the mystery of this journey? Jung said in a letter once that life is a short pause between two great mysteries. Beware of those who offer answers. They may be sincere, but their answers are not necessarily yours. Adaptive loyalty to what we have received from our environment may prove an unconscious subversion of the integrity of the soul.”
James Hollis. “Living an Examined Life. Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey.” Sounds True, 2018.
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