A Troubling Chapter

I am deeply immersed in reading What Matters Most by James Hollis, my favourite author of the moment. It is wonderful to encounter a psychologist who believes in soul as well as a spiritual teacher who is not trying to convince me that if I follow his guidance, I will lead a polyanna existence; where everything in my life unfolds with a happy, positive outcome. James Hollis suggests that life is not so much about achieving happiness but exploring self and writes “Though I am not against happiness I do consider it a poor measure of the worth and depth of one’s life.” So why am I now troubled? In what I consider a justifiable criticism of today’s preoccupation of avoiding our story, Hollis comments “Avoiding researching our story, claiming its paradoxes and contradictions as ours is the chief preoccupation of modern life – a culture of addiction, distraction and numbing. This flight from engaging our stories constitutes mauvais froi or bad faith to Jean Paul Sartre, inauthentic being as \”sin” to Paul Tillich, and neurosis to depth psychology.” It brings up the troubling issue of why some do this work and not others and is there any consequence if you never get around to it. It appears that frequently the call to individuation comes from a life crisis or spiritual emergency. In my case it required the classic mid-life crisis and the collapse of a relationship to bring me to an awareness of the work I needed to do however it took years of wandering in the wilderness for me fully appreciate that I was involved in a journey of consciousness. In hindsight it is as though I was chosen to do this work rather than choosing to do it. In fact I think it is fair to say that I was dragged kicking and screaming into the journey of self. There have been inexplicable moments of what I can only describe as grace that supported me in continuing the quest. Today I feel eternally grateful to have such an interesting life and as Hollis writes about shadow \”So what if the work seems overwhelming, endless – it makes for a more interesting life, and it does not get better than that!\”

But why is the call to do this work appear to be so unequally dispersed. Most of my friends from the earlier part of my life as well as much of my family seem blissfully unaware that there is work to be done on themselves. In his book on the shadow called Why Do Good People Do Bad Things, Hollis suggests that there is a penalty for ignoring the call. He writes \”one can divert libido or psychic energy only so long toward goals disconnected from the soul without the butcher\’s bill to pay\”. But the evidence of my own eyes creates a different picture. My more conscious friends seem to have the more challenging lives. I have observed that once the call has been acknowledged there is no going back. The soul does not like to return to sleep. There is no getting off at the next station and returning to the previous one. The cosmic two by four has a way of getting the conscious person’s attention while so many remain content in their smaller, less dramatic worlds.

Consider two siblings; one four and half years older than the other. Both grew up in the same authoritarian, fundamentalist Christian household where the patriarch’s word was the law. The regimen consisted of morning family prayer, no dancing, no movies, no friends to visit the house, quiet whenever the father was home, and church three times on Sunday –  a day when practically everything normal was forbidden. “If you live in my house you follow my rules.” was the dictate and both sons lived with a conflicted relationship with their father and left home around the age of twenty-one. The elder brother maintained a relationship with the beliefs espoused at home, while the younger at the age of fifteen declared his independence and was warned by his father “because you have heard the truth and refused to believe, you are doubly condemned.”

The older brother lived a very conventional life. A good, decent man, he married, had two children and was an attentive father and breadwinner. He has always reflected on his childhood as a happy time. He developed a remarkable capacity as a child to recall only the good things and never the bad; a capacity he has extended into his adult life. Now at the age of 68 he lives the winters in Florida where life is filled with bocce, horseshoes, golf, euchre and touring around the attractions of the Sunshine State. Summers are filled with golf, time with his grandchildren and many other family outings. He has no curiosity about his life at all and the only blot on his recent years was surgery to replace his hip, which he has now totally forgotten about.

The younger brother lived a much less conventional life; being married and divorced twice. At the age of 50 while surviving the tatters of his second marriage, he began a journey, which has since tormented, mystified and yet strangely fascinated him. He had the good fortune of having the opportunity to spend much of his fifties focused on himself. He pursued varying avenues of exploration including theological college, a spiritual guidance program that introduced him to Jung and the shadow. He became aware of the many complexes that had unconsciously governed much of his adult life and developed an intense curiosity for finding meaning in his life. He considers his life joyful, meaningful, with many kindred spirits on this strange journey, yet spends much of his time in confusion and the mystical state of not knowing. His commitment is to serve the dictates of the soul but knowing what they are is another matter. The two brothers were sitting together; the younger was confused about a number of possible directions open to him. His older brother’s response “ Why don’t you do what I do. I decide what is best for me and I just do it.” The paradox is clear but why? Why do some see and take on the mantle of the inquirer and others are not even aware it is there to be assumed?

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