James Hollis is the author of a sweet little book (2018) entitled The Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey. He divides the 110-page book into 21 chapters, each about 2-3 pages long. Hollis keeps it pithy and free of fluff. Examples of chapters include: “It’s Time to Grow Up”, “Step Out from Under Parental Shade”, “Vow to Get Unstuck”, and “Choose Meaning Over Happiness”. What follows is a brief review and some personal growth quotes that can be found in Chapter 9: “Choose the Path of Enlargement”. I do recommend the book and please consider this a “critical review” for educational purposes.
Quotes in this blog are attributable to Dr. Hollis unless otherwise noted.
“A very effective instrument when in the face of blockages and difficult choices is to ask the very pragmatic question: ‘Does this choice enlarge me or diminish me?’”
We tend to know the answer to the question of enlargement or diminishment if we are honest and insightful. If not, our unconscious mind will tend to inform us symbolically in dreams, or daydreams. Freud used the metaphoric iceberg to illustrate that much of what is “in our heads” is the largest part of the iceberg – the part the lies under water. The water line is the boundary of consciousness (which is an ever-changing state depending on many factors, such as whether we are awake or asleep, daydreaming or concentrating, on various types of psychoactive drugs, etc. As well, memories, tied inextricably as they are to sights, sounds, smells, songs we remember, etc., can easily evoke a surprisingly emotional response in us. Just yesterday I was driving along, minding my own business, and a song came on the radio that reminds me of my deceased father. I cried, right there at a stoplight.
“We should choose the path of enlargement, not service to wealth, power, fame, or the accolades of others, because it is what is asked of us by the soul.”
Many forces contribute to diminishment. Our sense of shame, unworthiness, being a small fry in a sea full of bigger fish, etc. We are born helpless and looking up to figures that seem infallible and omnipotent and omniscient. We live with this paradigm as we grow and develop, but it is surely an inextricable part of us. The world’s mountaineers and scientists such as Einstein are somewhat successful overcoming the part of us that feels inferior and incapable. Whether Einstein felt worthy of love is a matter of some question, however. He certainly seemed to have trouble in his relationships, as though the gods wanted to curse him with something to bind him to the earth with other mortals: “human, all too human”, as Nietzsche put it.
“In his various essays on personhood, Carl Jung writes that the summons to personhood is a calling, a true vocatus, in the original sense of a calling from the sacred. To obey this calling is tantamount to religious obedience to that which is larger than we. And therein lies both the path and the conundrum.”
“We all know people whose core insecurities have resulted in compensatory inflation. They are the power brokers of the world.” These folks are pursuing personal inflation rather than a more authentic kind of enlargement. Someone like Donald Trump is more like a Macy’s Parade balloon – seemingly large, but lacking in substance; just full of air. A child could bring such a persona low by piercing it with a steak knife.
“The attainment of personhood is not self-aggrandizement; it is answering a summons to step into oneself; to honor one’s interests, talents, and callings whether recognized by others or not.”
We project onto others the idea that they “have it together,” that they are wise and successful; that they are superior, basically. They usually project this image of excellence and superiority because they don’t want you to get the idea that they are probably more or less where you are in your personal growth and psychological development. This is a product of being a child at one time, when everyone was bigger, more powerful, worthy of great respect. As we grow up and discover time and again how we fall short, how challenging life is, and how much damage to self-esteem we have encountered, we assume that others have no such experiences. We see the marketing brochure and not the status report, basically.
“We all have a calling. For some it will be found in our capacity for caring for the needs of the suffering world around us. For others it will be the work of hands. For some it will be the work of the mind that opens doors and shatters shackles. For still others it will be the exploration of our natural world. For some it will be pushing back boundaries of our limited sense of the possible. But for all of us, there is a large summons.”
This “large summons” is our path to enlargement. If we can identify one or more of these compelling emotional vocations in life, it can make a huge difference. It is by no means easy for many if not most people. “Because we learn early that the safe response often lies in our denial of the reality of our own feelings, we soon align against our personal authority, becoming strangers to ourselves”, Hollis writes.
Dr. Hollis shares at this point in the chapter that he himself had a difficult childhood and learned to stuff his feelings. “The memory of intimidation by the large [adults we knew when very young] constrains us all” is how he puts it.
“We all have those fears, yet deep within is that call again, that summons. How many talents have been neglected, opportunities aborted, risks rationalized away? Each one of those moments of postponement, rationalization, and deflection was when we turned our back on our own soul.” He also believes that “Rather than be enslaved by our fears [which are] in service to our limiting heritage or our debilitated/devastated history, we finally understand that we are called to something large.” This is enlargement.
“It is a violation of our souls if we live our lives governed by our fears.”
I know this, not just from living my life, but from seeing my father’s life. People who knew him well would point out that, despite all his assets, such as humor and a pleasant persona, he had a deep sense of unfulfillment. We are sure that he was often plagued by fear, and at times paralyzed by it. It was like a cross he had to bear. At times it was like he was hefting a 100-pound cross up the street toward his crucifixion.
We have to “go through our fears” and not try to evade them, stuff our feelings, etc. Whatever is holding us back is worth disarming head-on rather than avoiding, denying, and rationalizing away. There are many salves and tinctures we can use to try to further our own personal growth, but the true path lies right up the middle. Hollis notes that “there is no magic, no set of five steps to dissolve the obstacles, no pill, no narcotic to make it all possible.” Sorry, Anthony Robbins, best-selling authors, and drug companies!
As Sting says: “Poets, priests, and politicians/ Have words to thank for their position…” but they will probably be little help to you. This process of personal growth, applied psychology, and self-improvement is a task for you and you alone (maybe with the help of a therapist, which he highly recommends). You’ve just gotta do the work, face the music, and determine what is holding you back and work on enlargement. My father once told me when I complained that life was hard, “You gotta sweat.” He also noted “There are no free lunches in this world.” Indeed,
“When we remain prisoners to our complexes, and to their history-bound, unimaginative power, what else can we do but repeat our [dysfunctional] history?”
“We have made enough excuses in our lives, offered enough rationalizations, and evinced enough evasions, but something inside persists, shows up, troubles sleep, and asks more of us – and sooner or later we all have an appointment with our soul.”
People like Trump and my father do not wish to make the appointment with their soul. For my dad, it was at times all he could do to keep his “normal” life operating – with the help of medications and compulsions. He was a decent person and never left my sister and me hungry, but being a courageous pathfinder and explorer of his inner world he was not. As for Trump, he was set on a path of estrangement from his soul – probably by age 8 when his father twisted law and propriety and made him a millionaire. It has been downhill since, both for him and for the nation.
“All those whom we admire in history had to go through something, and when they did, they learned on the other side that they were still there, though the world was different.” They then open up a new panorama of the possible. They make personal growth a real thing, not just a concept in a book, or a wish. Ω
Below is another blog about personal growth, psychological development, and becoming, and here is a website on the subject.