Im not usually a fan of the self-improvement genre of books. For a while I subscribed to a service that took bestseller non-fiction books and then distilled them down to bullet point summaries so you could get the gist of the authors content without reading the whole thing.
When it came to the deconstruction of self-improvement books it became quickly evident that most (ie 99.7%) can be parsed down to a few simple (often common sense) practices that the author then pads out with philosophical hyperbole, cherry picked case studies, dopamine activating affirmations and branded jargonisation until they fill a book. Or three.
That said, every now and again I come across a book that is actually pretty bloody good.
Recently I have been reading a bit about Carl Jung the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. This eventually led me to trip over the book Living an Examined Life by James Hollis.
James is a Jungian therapist who has written a series of 21 essays about living your unlived life.
It is pitched at people living the second part of their lives. That is, we are born twice. Once when we spill out of our mother’s womb into this world and again when we take charge of our lives. When we finally really show up and grow up.
Growing up means, among other things, that I am accountable for my life, my choices, my consequences. It is not enough to say, “I meant well.” These choices came from me, from the values I professed, from the politicians I elected, the dubious choices I affirmed in the marketplace of ideas. There is no one who is going to show up and explain it all to me. I have to figure it out for myself and through trial and error and occasional suffering find a path, friends, values, lifestyle that are confirmed from within.
—Hollis, James. Living an Examined Life
This book is a deep read.
I would recommend reading it through once, and then taking a single chapter a day (or a week) to really simmer on.
Being a Jungian therapist, James will take you on a summons to examine your ego, your relationships (ie the effects of projection and transference on them) and the darker side of your shadow self. He will hold up the two great weights changed to your legs: fear (“The world is too big for you, too much. You are not up to it. Find a way to slip-slide away again today.”) and lethargy (“Hey, chill out. You’ve had a hard day. Turn on the telly, surf the Internet, have some chocolate. Tomorrow’s another day”).
Sooner or later, we are each called to face what we fear, respond to our summons to show up, and overcome the vast lethargic powers within us. This is what is asked of us, to show up as the person we really are, as best we can manage, under circumstances over which we may have no control. This showing up as best we can is growing up. That is all that life really asks of us: to show up as best we can.
— Hollis, James. Living an Examined Life
Finally he will show you the importance of imbuing your life with both meaning and mystery.
I would recommend this book for anyone who feels some sense of disconnect or uncertainty with their lives and I would doubly recommend it to people who feel connected and certain (yet somehow empty of something).
In conclusion, it surprised me just how much deep reflection the book catalysed with my own reading. The call to grow up and show up definitely pushed at some buttons. It is the kind of book you want not on a Kindle, but as a manifest companion on your bedside table all dog eared, marginalia encrusted and spine bent.
Four point five stars.
Sooner or later, a person has to understand and revisit the basics: we are not here for long; we are accountable for the life we have lived or not lived; we are summoned to choice, courage, and perseverance in living this life. From that recognition, the necessity of permission becomes more than obvious; it becomes the vital oxygen we must breathe, or we choke to death on the fumes of the unlived life.
—Hollis, James. Living an Examined Life
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