There’s plenty of wisdom in this book, provided you arm yourself with an unabridged copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, and perhaps an advanced degree or two, before picking it up.
Hollis, a teacher at the Jung Center of Houston and a distinguished faculty member of the Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, writes like the academic he is. His premise is sound: Life is for living. Don’t be afraid of it; learn how to tolerate uncertainty; respect love; risk growth; accept mortality. But when those wise words are couched in prose like this, they’re difficult to get at:
But in every moment of certainty, every privileging of fractal consciousness, every necessary hubris, we also know something else! We know that we float above an abyss in every hour. As Pascal noted in his Pensees, the universe need not arm itself to destroy us. A drop of vapor will do, and if such viral velleities fail, there is always some molecular anomaly, the cancer of life multiplying so fast it eats flesh, blood and bone. This roiling Angst that covers the highway we traverse with a perverse fog contains within it many possible fears, and in time our life is not only adapted to but governed by those fears, and our defenses against them. Thus, creatures who value life are pulled from it, collude against it, and destroy what they most desire. Desiring life, we deny death; denying death, we run from life! (p.8)
When we are off track, psyche protests. Noisy demonstrations are held in the amphitheater of the body; streets are blocked in the brain by rebels from the cane fields; dreams are invaded by spectral disturbances; affects riot and tear down the work of years. Meanwhile, the timorous ego, Nervous Nellie of Necessity, runs from these tumults, represses, splits off, projects, procrastinates, rationalizes, diverts, narcotizes, but the insurgents dig in for the long haul. “Our” abdication, our overthrow, seems their aim, and our terrors multiply. Whatever shaky throne we purchased at the price of numerous adjustments and backroom deals is our presumptive treasure and our sanctum. Nellie on the throne admits no faults, no threnodies for her reign, and simply orders more troops to guard the castle walls. The sundered sovereign, ego, will resist until resistance is futile: depression debilitates, the spouse leaves, the cost of the addiction is too much, troubling dreams persist, until a deep, shaming sense of sham may no longer plausibly be denied.
In other words — when you’re stressed out, it can cause difficulties with your mental health.
Pages 68-69 briefly discuss narcissistic parents; pages 70-71 discuss megachurches and demagogues, and Hollis weaves the two together by suggesting that we ask this question of all elements of our lives, whether faith, relationships, politics or professions: “Does this path, this choice, make me larger or smaller?,” then keep asking until the answer is clear.
A discussion of spiritual crises may be of value to many readers. Spiritual crises, according to Hollis, occur “when our identity, our roles, our values, or our road map are substantially called into question, prove ineffective, or are overwhelmed by experience that cannot be contained by our understandings of self and world” (p. 144). He slots them into five categories:
- personal or cultural trauma;
- autogeneous swampland visitations (becoming depressed and anxious over lack of control; it refers to the title of another of his books);
- discrepancies between expectations and outcomes;
- incongruence between map and terrain (living according to received rules instead of finding your own); and
- dystonic relations between the false and the natural self.
The five corresponding ways to react to these situations are:
- collapse of some kind (a “nervous breakdown”);
- regression (falling back on what’s worked before, even if it was disordered);
- narcotization and
…still today, we look back down the highway, seeing the wreckage, the carnage of hope, the bent dreams, the many casualties taken, the heart’s collateral damage. We wish to blame someone for all this, although we grudgingly admit that the only person present in all those passing scenes has been ourselves, and so somehow we must be accountable before our history. … Our story, with its many sub-stories, still courses through us, and we are still trying to figure out what it is, what it means, and what we are to do about it (p. 175).
All in all, once you wade through the purple prose, this book is just common sense advice available in a number of places (such as Psych Central) for free.
What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life
James Hollis, Ph.D
New York: Gotham Books, January 2009
Hardcover, 256 pages