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Dr. James Hollis

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Embracing the New: Avoiding a Routinized Life

Posted: 03/29/10 02:57 PM ET

On my printer I have pasted a quote from Odysseus who, two and a half millennia ago, said, "I will stay with it and endure through suffering hardship / and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to pieces, then I will swim."

Why is this quote there, of the many possible? Odysseus was fully aware of his perilous position on the high seas. At various isles, he and his comrades had to fight monsters on the one hand and resist the sundry seductions of sensual slumber on the other. Whether battling Polyphemus, or leaving the Isle of the Lotus Eaters, or traversing the clashing rocks, he knew that he had to press forward, or drown in fear or lethargy in the wine dark sea.

Every morning we awake and we face the same perils as that ancient mariner. At the foot of our beds two grinning gremlins wait to greet us. One is called Fear and the other is called Lethargy. Fear snarls in familiar form: "Don't go out there. It is too big for you. You are not up to it!" Some days he wins and we stay safe, close to the harbor of habit and shores of familiar contour. Lethargy says: "Chill out. Have a chocolate. Turn on the telly or the internet. Tomorrow's another day." His voice is equally dangerous for we secretly long for such sibilant seduction. One of the four rivers of classical Hell was Lethe. Drinking of its waters made one forget all. Frequently, Homer tells us, Odysseus's comrades succumbed to fear, and fled, or lethargy, and "forgot" their journey.

It is troubling to me that so many of us, so many of our days, succumb to fear and lethargy. Some days we spend mindlessly distracted by the diversions of popular culture. Some days we are numbed by the press of duties, legitimate claims of work and relationship, and little is left over. Some days we simply forget to show up. But how are we to "show up," and in service to what, remain compelling questions, and worthy of periodic reflection.

Jung once observed that our neuroses were in fact our private religions, that is, where the bulk of our spirit is actually invested. H. L. Mencken once observed that one could hardly go broke under-estimating the taste of the American public. I would change that to suggesting that one cannot go broke under-estimating the role anxiety management systems play in governing our lives. This is natural given the fact that we are both launched on a perilous journey which ends sooner or later in death, and are conscious of this prospect all the while.

No wonder we spend so much time hiding, or seeking distraction. Such diversion is understandable even as it is lethal. Nearly four centuries ago the French mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal observed that the court had to invent the jester because even the King might grow troubled if he were obliged to reflect upon himself. Pascal concluded that divertissement, or diversion, had become the chief role of popular culture. How much greater are the jester-like distractions of our time.

The majority of persons I see in analytic therapy are in their 50s and 60s. All have achieved productive lives and possess considerable capacity for insight and self-direction. This is what has brought them to therapy for, as Jung observed in the 1920s, more people came to him because of "the general aimlessness of life" than overt psychopathology. When I mentioned this fact in a recent radio interview, the interviewer, herself educated, said, "But we were told in graduate school that old people didn't really change." I don't know who those instructors were, or how old they were, but they were wrong.

Of course as people age they can grow ever more cautious, timid, fearful, rigid, and resistant to change. We see that in the divisions which beset our country now. But is it's clear to me, and anyone who works with a psychodynamic perspective, that our psyche wishes to grow, to develop, to bring new things into the world. As I have put it elsewhere, we need to periodically ask, "What wants to come into the world through me?" This is not an ego-driven, narcissistic question. It is a query which summons us to show up, to serve something larger than the familiar, the comfortable. Surely one of the most telling tests of our lives is whether we are living in a way which is driven more by challenge than by comfort, one which asks more of us than we had planned to offer.

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that merchant vessels hug the coast line, but men-o-war open their orders on the high seas. Every day we are cast upon the high seas of the soul. Whether we wish to be or not, we are already there, and have orders to show up. We begin showing up when we ask ourselves where are we blocked by fear, by lack of permission to live our own life, by self-doubt? What do we gain from staying stuck? Where is life served by our staying stuck? Who, or what are we waiting for before beginning our real life? How does staying stuck help anyone around us?

If we think our life dull, routinized and repetitive, we may profitably think more on our predecessor, our brother, Odysseus, and why someone 2,700 years ago thought it so important to write about the twin perils of fear and lethargy. It seems as if they have been our companions for a very long time now; yet every day we are summoned anew to high adventure on the tenebrous seas of the soul. Living our lives, and not someone else's, calls us to voyage, and if our familiar structures falter, then we swim.

James Hollis, Ph.D., Jungian analyst in Houston, TX, author of What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life.