Have you come to a point in your life where the pursuits of your younger years no longer seem meaningful or satisfying? Maybe it’s time for you to transition from the first half of your life to the second.
My guest today has spent decades helping people, particularly men, make this passage. His name is James Hollis and he’s a Jungian analyst and the author of over a dozen books, including Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. We begin our conversation with a brief overview of what makes Jungian or depth psychology unique, and how it helps individuals find meaning and deal with life’s existential questions. Our discussion then explores the differences between the first and second halves of life, and how the main question of the first is “What is the world asking of me?” while the primary question of the second is “What is my soul asking of me?” Jim explains why you need to sort through the influences of your family and culture on who you’ve become and how the second half of life is about finding personal authority and sovereignty. We also discuss why the first half of life is always “a gigantic, unavoidable mistake,” and why that’s okay.
Jim explains what triggers the impetus to move from the first to the second half of life, how it can happen at any age, how to make the transition from one phase to the other, and why the journey to the second can be terrifying because it lacks the structure of the first. Jim describes the internal systems you can use for guidance in moving forward in the absence of this external structure. He then gets into the importance of continuing to grow in your profession or marriage throughout your life. We discuss the particular reasons men can get stuck in the first half of life, and how men are more free to tend to the needs of their souls these days, but can still feel adrift. We end our conversation with how you can know if you’re on the right track in pursuing the tasks of the second half of life.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- A primer on Carl Jung’s psychology
- The symptoms of existential crises
- The typical agenda for the first half of life (and why it’s usually so necessary)
- What are “complexes”? How do they influence the first half of life?
- What Siddhartha can teach us about life
- Is there always an event that draws us into the second half of life?
- Why you shouldn’t ignore your feelings
- Paying attention to your dreams
- Is happiness the goal of life?
- Making later-life career transitions
- Can a couple evolve together in the same direction?
- Men and meaning
- How men get too dependent on sex, food, substances, and success
- How do you know if you’re on the right path in life?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- How to Find Your Calling in Life
- AoM series on male depression
- Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsesses With Happiness
- How to Find Your Life’s Purpose
- Sources of Existential Angst
- The Journey to the Second Half of Life
- The Quest for a Moral Life
- Self, Soul, and Living a More Idealistic Life
- Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts
- The Seasons of a Man’s Life
- The Middle Passage
- Under Saturn’s Shadow
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy
- Henry Moore
- Begin With the End in Mind
- Escape From Freedom by Erich Fromm
- Figuring Out if You Should Change Careers
Connect With James
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Have you come to a point in your life where the pursuits of your younger years no longer seem meaningful or satisfying, well maybe it’s time for you to transition from the first half of your life to the second. My guest today has spent decades helping people, particularly men, make this passage, his name is James Hollis, and he’s a Jungian analyst and the author of over a dozen books. We begin the conversation with a brief overview of what makes Jungian or depth psychology unique and how it helps individuals find meaning and deal with life’s existential questions. Our discussion then explores the differences between the first and second halves of life, and how the main question the first is what is the world asking of me? While the primary question, the second is what is my soul asking of me? Jim explains why you need to sort through influence of your family and culture on who you become and how the second half of life is about finding personal authority and sovereignty. We also discuss why the first half of life is always a gigantic, unavoidable mistake, and why that’s perfectly okay.
Jim explains what triggers the impetus to move from the first half to the second half of life, how it can happen at any age, how to take the transition from one phase to the other, and why the journey of the second can be terrifying, because it lacks the structure of the first. Jim then describes the internal systems you can use for guidance in moving forward in the absence of external structure. He then gets into the importance of continuing to grow in your profession or marriage throughout your life. We discuss the particular reasons men can get stuck in the first half of life and how men are more free to tend to the needs of their souls these days, but can still feel adrift. And we end our conversation on how you can know if you’re on the right track in pursuing the task of the second half of life. After the show is over, check at our show notes at aom.is/secondhalf.
All right, Jim Hollis, welcome to the show.
James Hollis: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be with you.
Brett McKay: So, you’re a Jungian psychoanalyst and you’ve written lots of books, and the one we’re gonna talk about today, it’s Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally Really Grow Up. Before we do that, let’s give a little bit of background on Jungian psychology without getting too technical or theoretical about it, what were the big issues that Jung was trying to address with his framework of psychology?
James Hollis: Well, I think the thing that distinguished Jung, perhaps most of all, was his emphasis on the human being as a meaning-seeking, meeting-creating individual. And more individuals suffer when they’re disconnected from meaning in their life than any other single cause, more than all of the environmental wounds that life brings us. And he frequently emphasized that we remember that the word psyche really means soul. And most modern psychology fractionates human beings into behaviors, which of course, we are, cognitive processes, which we do every moment, and biological processes, ’cause we do have bodies. And all of that is useful and helpful, but it’s still doesn’t sum the whole person. And the whole person is at heart, a mystery. And there’s so many autonomous processes in each of us that are constantly in some way critiquing our lives. And the real effort is to try to undertake a dialogue with those other elements that are making choices for us.
Now, of course, the problem with the unconscious is its unconscious, so we can’t say very much about it. And yet, so much of it keeps spilling into the world on a daily basis, harming our children, ourselves, our partners, or whomever. And so, it’s about a kind of accountability to one’s own psychological reality, and a responsibility for what spills into the world through us, and an effort to dialogue with the depths of the human soul and the psyche. And also to recognize that if we’re in a meaningful relationship to our own souls, then we can go through difficult times, we can suffer, we can experience conflict and defeat, and still feel the rightness of our lives. But on the other hand, we can do all the right things, as defined by our family of origin or our popular culture, and there’s something empty and aching inside. And the internal satisfaction is registered symptomatically. So, I could do all the right things, for example, and feel the emptiness of it, or feel depressed, or been self-medicating, or whatever. So, all of those are really reminders that we have to pay attention to something very deep within us that is our natural wisdom and is seeking to communicate with us, and on a daily basis, is critiquing things. And it might make sense once in a while to stop and pay attention to that.
Brett McKay: So, I think this is useful. So, it sounds like with Jungian or depth psychology, these are answering existential questions about life itself.
James Hollis: Yes.
Brett McKay: So, I think the example of depression is a good one to sort of differentiate the different types of psychologies, cause you’ve been talking about that. So depression, we do know that there’s a physiological aspect to it and you can use medicine to treat it. There’s also a cognitive aspect to it. So, you can do things like cognitive behavioral therapy, where you change the way you think about an issues, so you’re not thinking negatively all the time. But what you’re saying, what depth psychology or Jungian psychology is doing is looking at depression from an existential point of view, and saying, “Maybe there’s something more to that depression besides a cognitive or physiological thing, this is actually could be, you’re just depressed, ’cause you feel existentially adrift, and depth psychology addresses that.
James Hollis: Sure. One of the ways to look at this is to ask the question. Why is it that I in my best lights and still experiencing a depression? Why has my psyche autonomously withdrawn its approval and support? And I’ll use a personal example, myself. When I was in my early to mid 30s I had achieved all my goals. I’d done all the things that I felt I was supposed to do, and had been successful with ’em. And yet I felt this deep depression, and it’s the thing that sent me into my first hour of personal therapy. It didn’t sound to me like I was beginning the second half of life, and it didn’t feel like a great moment in my life. [chuckle] It felt rather like a defeat of some kind, and at the same time, it was the beginning of a different kind of journey and a different kind of question. Because I think I as most people had sort of picked up from my culture what my task was, what the assignments were, how to win approval, chase that elusive god as success, and it had led me further and further from myself. And it was really the beginning of the second half of life kind of journey which is quite a different journey than the first half of life.
So the real question is, if my psyche is not thrilled with the executive functions coming down from the top floor, what might the psyche ask of me? And frankly, we will avoid that kind of question. We will tend to ramp up our previous efforts, and the depression will only get more pronounced. It’s kinda like again, digging yourself a hole and realize, “Oh my goodness, I’m in a hole,” but the tool you have in your hand is a shovel. So you work harder and the hole gets deeper. And then you have to realize this is not the way that I have to begin to reframe the situation. What is the soul asking of me ? And I know soul, is one of those words that can be sort of new agey or whoa whoa, but it’s really a word that is trying to point to the central mystery of the human personality. And it’s something profoundly elusive and yet omnipresent in our lives. And as a result again is our constant companion. And the only question is, What kind of relationship do we have with that companion? Is it hostile, estranged, repressed or is it conversational? And that makes a huge difference in a person’s life.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like, if anyone’s had that moment where they’re lying in bed at night staring at the ceiling wondering, What am I doing with my life, they’re under the steps of death Psychology.
James Hollis: Absolutely. They’re asking the right question. Because in the first half of life one could say, and this is somewhat of an over-generalization, but I think it’s true, we all have to address, What is the world asking of me? What do my parents want? What do the school teachers want? What does the employer want? What does your partner want? What is this task that my environment is speaking to me? And we throw ourselves into it in good faith, and that’s important. It helps build enough ego strength and it builds enough sort of maturation and hopefully personal accountability, that allows us to ask those questions later when the bottom seems to fall out. So you’re right, it’s at three in the morning, the hour the wolf’s just called that when often is stricken with the sense of futility or a sense of emptiness or basic fear, and out of that can come a different life. It’s not necessarily something we want to do, it’s something life is asking of us. So in my own case, I think I probably just worked harder to avoid that encounter. So the depression had to intensify, until it finally got my attention.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about this going to detail about the first half and second half of life. So you just mentioned first half of life, this is when we’re building up. This is when we do the things we think we’re supposed to be doing. Go to school, get a job, get married, have a family, buy a house, et cetera.
James Hollis: Yes, yes, yeah. And it’s about ego building. I don’t mean egotism. I mean building your sense of your conscious identity. We have to leave our parents. We have to step in the world. We have to take on the tasks. And the person who doesn’t do that, who is avoiding that, is gonna pay the piper down the line sooner or later. But we have to step into the world, and it has been suggested by others that, it’s a kind of ego world axis. What is the world asking of me, and can I mobilize my resources, my sense of discipline or my willingness to pay my dues legitimately in order to meet those tests. And that’s a part of growing up. And if a truck ran over us on our 25th or our 30th birthday, we could say, Well the person died young, but they sort of did what they were supposed to do, they entered the world. But then again, the autonomy of the psyche begins to manifest later.
And we have to remember first of all, we’re living so much longer than any time in human history. And Jung asked the question, a very obvious question. If we have served our social function perhaps reproduce the species et cetera, why are we still here? [chuckle] What’s the task in the rest of that journey? And that’s a different kind of agenda. And then the axis of conversation in some way has to turn just from ego to world, but ego to the Self a capital S meaning that interior intelligence that is seeking our developmental agendas. And to ask another kind of question. And what is wanting expression through me? That’s quite different than what does the world want? And then the question is alright, What is it that my own soul is asking of me? And that can lead to some very difficult choices in life. It can lead to new directions in life. It can lead to the ending of something or the beginning of something else and that in between time is very difficult. One of the first books I wrote was called, The Middle Passage, ’cause I realized that the folks I was seeing after I’d return from training in Zurich, had different presenting situations, different life histories, different sort of ways of seeing their lives, but one thing was in common, and that was their understanding of Self and world.
Their psychological roadmap, if you will, had played out, it was exhausted and wasn’t working and something better hadn’t appeared on the horizon. And so I thought, “Well, that’s what a passage is, a passage is where something dies and something else is wishing expression, but you’re in a terrible in-between. And part of the task of therapy, certainly is to hold together the fragments that hold you… You still go to your job, you still take care of your children, you still tend to the tasks of legitimate summons of the outer world. And at the same time, say… But I also have to start turning within and saying, “Alright what is calling me here, what is beckoning me or why this internal discord?” And so the whole notion of a passage in the middle of our lives, we know something about the adolescent passage of leaving home and getting a big body and stepping into big roles.
Assuming I’ve left my parents and their mistakes behind, I’m only out there unconsciously repeating them or running from them or trying to fix them but I’m never free of them. And again that tends to dominate the first half of life, chronologically, but then the second half is where I have to ask, “Alright, where do I go now with your ego aside?” And that could be a very humbling and frightening encounter because for a while we don’t know and not everybody’s in therapy, of course and people may say, “Oh, well, this hasn’t occurred to me.” But it often does in ways of which they’re unaware. And this is not necessarily to be tied to one’s chronological age, for example. Sometimes it hits people full in the face when their marriage breaks up, or when they are forcibly downsized at work or when they’re aging and have to face an illness or they’ve lost a partner or forced to retire and then they realize how much that other relationship or that job was carrying their sense of Self for them. And now that that is no longer there to carry it for them on behalf of them, where does it go? It falls back into one’s own psyche either as a depression or as a kind of panic. So, the passage occurs when it occurs. And I’ve seen people go through it in their 60s and 70s, for example, again, not tied chronologically, but it’s whenever we are obliged to take our life seriously in a new way and set off in a new direction.
Brett McKay: So I know that many of our listeners are in their 20s, so they’re like in the middle of this first half of life. And something that I thought was very useful in your book is that you describe the influence that one’s family, peers, and culture have on you in this first half of life, and I guess this is what you would call complexes right?
James Hollis: Sure, sure. Complexes are not necessarily bad things. Complexes are expressions of the fact that we have a history. So, for example, to choose the literal, let’s say, when you start to cross the street, there’s a reflexive response in you that looks left and right. You might be thinking about something else but you tend to do that… That’s a protective complex, it’s designed by your history to be protective to you. We have other clusters of history and think of complexes as clusters of our history. When triggered, they have the power to come up and take over the ego structure and enact their old program, that’s why we have these repetitions in our lives. And so we think when we’re young and setting, or say if I’m a 21-year-old or 22-year-old, I’ve just graduated from college and so forth, and I’m setting off my life and I’m doing all the things that I’m supposed to do, I think, “Well, I’ve left that world behind.” And yet, we know upon visioning, it’s later, we were either repeating those patterns or we were running from them. And whenever a person says, “Oh I don’t wanna be like my mother or I don’t wanna repeat my father’s life.” We’re still living reactively, rather than out of some directive core or thirdly, we’ll be out there trying to fix it somehow. Trying to stay busy, trying to stay unconscious, self-medicating whatever.
Those are the kinds of recognitions that we have that in some way, we’re still in some way captive to whatever the messages are. Not to even forget for a moment, the powers of popular culture to define what does it mean to be successful, what does success mean? Well, we have all kinds of definitions in our exterior environment, but what if they’re not in accord with… What if your idea of being successful is to make a lot of money, so go ahead and do that and see if that really works, ’cause we know tons of people who made tons of money and they’re often very emptied souls or they’re often people who are doing a lot of self-medicating or always wills the risk and always looking for some new distraction. So it’s in those moments then you begin to realize, alright sooner or later that was… If I were 20-21 listening this I would say, “Well, what’d I do to avoid this?” I don’t know, to tell you the truth. It’s like go out, make your choices, live your life, but once in a while surface and say, “Where am I really, What does this really feel like inside of me, what’s going on here? Does this feel like it’s really about me or is it about me still trying to prove something?
And when you’re young, you have to go out. And I’ve said to people, “Look the first half of life, speaking very loosely is pretty much a gigantic unavoidable mistake.” And they laugh ’cause they think I’m making fun of it, but I’m not. It’s like go live your life, create a life, make mistakes, but then try to figure them out and then realize, “Okay, life is to some degree experimentation,” but then you realize, “Okay, I tried this job.” Many times people work very hard in school, or to prepare for a certain profession, or something, and I’ve worked with so many very unhappy lawyers, for example, or a number of frazzled doctors, or a number of other people who worked hard to achieve their professional identity, and then at the end, they find themselves burned out or they find themselves utterly bored with what they’re doing. And it’s not that they did something wrong, it’s that they were serving an agenda that was not appropriate for the rest of their journey.
And rather than see this as a huge disappointment, defeat, one has to say, “Alright, it is what it is. It was what it was, and now, I have to figure out what the next journey is about.” And that could be a tremendous opportunity for redefining oneself and for taking new directions. And the biggest project, frankly, the second half of life is the recovery of personal authority. We have it when we’re children, it’s called instinct, but we’re tiny, dependent, vulnerable, afraid, have to sort of fit into the circumstances of our family or the world around us and we traded away every day. And the second half of life is finding personal authority and living it. And personal authority means sorting through an extraordinary amount of traffic that flows through us at any given moment. It means busier in there than LAX at rush hour. And the question is, “Alright, where are those voices coming from and which one’s coming from my own soul and which ones are coming from my family origin? Where’s it coming from my popular culture?” That’s a sorting process that goes on the entire length of one’s life ’cause the day I don’t pay attention to that, there is a good chance that I’m on automatic pilot again and I’m serving one of those inherited voices.
And then secondly, having discerned something that really, you feel is right for you then have the courage to live it, and to live it over time with whatever costs come to you because that’s how you get your life back again. I think the the second half of life is sort of getting your life back again, meaning, taking some ownership of achieving a greater sense of personal sovereignty and personal integrity.
Brett McKay: Well, as you described… When you said that the first half of life is, you can kind of sum it up as an unavoidable big mistake we all have to go through, I know Jung was, he uses myth a lot and when you talk about that it reminded me of the Buddha, the story of Siddhartha where he tried the life of gluttony and whatever, and then that didn’t work out and then he tried extreme asceticism that didn’t work. And then he finally reached enlightenment.
James Hollis: Sure, and it’s very interesting if I remember correctly, he was living in this pleasure palace that his very indulgent parents created for him until he was 28. And one day he wandered out into the world for the first time and he saw what I think they call, The Four Passing Sights, and he saw a beggar. He realized for the first time there’s want. He saw a person who was afflicted with pain and he realized for the first time the body could be a source of suffering. He saw a wandering monk and he realized for the first time there was potentially a life of the spirit, in addition to that of the body. And he saw a corpse and he realized for the first time that there’s such a thing as mortality, and an absolutely overwhelmed system as we know. And then he wandered for seven days, seven years rather, as you just mentioned exploring all kinds of options until he reached some kind of enlightenment, and his basic enlightenment was the chief cause of human suffering is the management system, the ego is achieved and maybe worked hard to achieve, but it’s that that gets one into trouble over, and over, and over. And Jung’s memoir, memories, dreams, and reflections he frequently says, it’s his own self-exploration of midlife. Well, here’s another thing I didn’t know about myself and it felt like a defeat.
Well, why would it feel like a defeat if you’ve learned something important about yourself? Well, it’s because the ego is invested in its own fantasy of sovereignty. I know who I am. I have enough knowledge to make proper choices. I’m doing the right things. I’m a smart guy, et cetera, et cetera and then life shows up and pokes a hole in that. And those humbling experiences are the ones where we most begin to learn and find different directions.
Brett McKay: So, you mentioned this passage from the first half to second half, there’s no chronological age to it and rather, it’s usually an event that draws them to that passage. Does there have to be an event like you have to lose a job, you have to lose a loved one for that to happen?
James Hollis: No.
Brett McKay: Okay.
James Hollis: No. Let me just mention for example, in, I think it was 1884, 85, Tolstoy published a novella called, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and that’s a name in Russian that means something like John Johnson so it’s meant to be in every man’s sort of story. And this is a guy who is worth you’re reading. It’s a story of a guy who did all the right things. He went to the right school, lived in the right neighborhood, married the right person. Espouse the right social and political values, was a lawyer and then became a judge and was rising the system and everything, and he was just following the script as faithfully as he could. Then one day, there’s a pain in his side that just doesn’t go away. And to shorten the story, it basically, he finds that he has a terminal illness and for the first time in his life, he begins to question things. So, in that story, it’s an event, it’s an illness of substantial proportions. Sometimes for people, it’s just a growing sense of the exhaustion of the game plan of the first half of life. Look, in fairness, we set off thinking we could do this particular job for 50 years.
Well, [chuckle] human psyche is mobile, and fluid, and it very quickly, I think, wants to move on. It wants to… The human psyche wants two things. It wants a fuller expression of its own possibilities and it wants self-healing, and to serve those functions, it’s going to, again, withdraw approval and energy. It’s very rare that you can find a person truly excited about his work after many years, and those who do are lucky, they found a particular passion. Henry Moore, the sculpture was still sculpting into his eighth decade and he said, “Well, I just found a passion so great I couldn’t ship it all the way,” and that’s wonderful, but we have to remember, passion comes from the Latin passio, that means to suffer. So, he was saying, “All right, this is something that I feel so deeply that it actually hurts to do it and hurts not to do it, but the experience of doing it is profoundly meaningful.” I spent my life with a hammer and chisel, [chuckle] and pounding stone. That’s not an easy life, but it’s meaningful for me and so underneath all of that is really the question, what is the psyche’s opinion about this?
And that’s what sooner or later has to knock on the door loudly enough, which is why typically, we get these intimations all along the way. We even have them in the first half of life, but we’re so busy serving the external agendas, and our goals, and often look quite legitimately in doing that, but also there’s a certain kind of vested interest to not stopping very long to look. Satchel Paige said once, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Well, something is always gaining on us and that’s the a certain kind of accountability to our own deeper lives.
Brett McKay: One of the things, when you described the first half of life, one of the nice things about it is that there is a structure, there’s a framework like you know what to do. There are things you can do and you know that you’re doing the thing you’re supposed to do. The second half of life doesn’t seem there’s that same sort of structure.
James Hollis: That’s right, that’s right.
Brett McKay: So, how do you go about navigating that second half of life when you have no clue of what you’re supposed to be doing?
James Hollis: That’s right. Yeah, and that can be terrifying. It’s also known as freedom. It’s an opportunity for new exploration, new trial and error, but also, I mean, I’ve had so many people say to me something like, “Well, I always wanna do this or that,” and there’s always a but. I had to pay for this, I had to go do that, I had the kids to deal with, this kind of thing. They’re all good reasons, but in the end, they serve as excuses for not having been faithful to what was looking for expression through us. That’s why I said, the central question of the second half of life is not what does the world want, it’s what does the soul want. And another way of looking at that is what is looking for expression in the world through me? That can be a career, for example, or a line of employment, but it’s usually not that narrow. It’s like stepping into your own personhood because that’s the person. This is not self-indulgence, this is serving yourself. There’s a difference. That’s the person you will share with your partner. That’s the person you share with your children, your neighbors, your society.
Jung said, “Individuation,” which he didn’t mean narcissism or individualism, he said, “It’s about serving what’s wanting expression through you,” and he says, “That means at times withdrawing from the collective,” which creates a kind of debt,” he said. “And that debt is paid for by returning a more evolved person to your relationships and to your society.” And that’s why, in a sense, it’s the greatest gift to our society for you to become who you are. Again, not in service to narcissistic interests or self-absorption, it usually will call for sacrifice, courage, and persistence over time, but that’s who you become and that’s something that’s frankly rolling fewer problems into the next generation.
Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned freedom is terrifying, I think Erich Fromm, he wrote that book, Escape from Freedom. Whenever you actually have the chance to be free, I think a lot of people have that tendency to go, “Oh, I’m gonna go back to that first half of life structure cause that’s… ” I’m comfortable with that.
James Hollis: Of course.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
James Hollis: Yeah, of course.
Brett McKay: So, how do you manage that? When you deal with patients who… They’re asking those questions and they’re on that precipice, but then they wanna retreat, how do you move forward?
James Hollis: Well, there has to be an, again, enough internal discord. People don’t just come into my office ’cause they were in the neighborhood and thought they’d just talk to a total stranger. There has to be some bug inside of them, some irritation in the membrane that’s trying to become the pearl here. There has to be some suffering of some kind and then you have to say, “All right, now let’s pay attention to the systems that you do have, the systems that we all learned necessarily to override.” First of all, is the feeling function. You say, “Well, everybody knows about their feelings, right?” Well, stop and think for a moment. Feelings are not something we create. Feelings are autonomous qualitative evaluations of how our life is going by the psyche. What we do, from an ego standpoint, is we pay no attention to them, we anesthetize them, we project them onto other people. Feelings are not created by us, they occur. So, you stop and pay attention. And if you really, at times, stop and ask, “But how do I really feel about this?” And I have to say really, ’cause you can’t trust the first responses.
They’re gonna be filtered through the complexes, they’re gonna be protective, or avoidant, or deflective. How do I… You sit with that, how do I really feel about that? Then you realize your feeling function draws you towards certain directions or courses in your life. Secondly, is energy systems. We can mobilize our energy and we do when have to and that’s fortunate, but if you keep expending energy in the wrong direction, it’s gonna lead to that boredom and then to burnout. You remember Joseph Campbell said once, “You spend your life trying to climb the ladder and then you realize you placed your ladder against the wrong wall.” So, you spend a lot of energy going up the ladder, but then you realize, “Oh, this is not where I was supposed to be going.” So, energy systems ultimately are clues when we’re doing what’s right for us.
The energy systems are there. In other words, when I’m doing what is right for me, I am flooded with that supportive energy. And when I’m doing what’s wrong I have to be working against my own brain. My wife has been a painter, for example, and I’ve seen her lost, so to speak, in the canvas. And it’s almost like she doesn’t know where she is and that’s good because she’s in the grip of that energy and it carries her. Or there are times when I’ve been doing something like writing or working with someone and I have no sense of time because the energy is there, the flow is there.
Thirdly, we have dreams. We average six dreams per night, which isn’t a lot of activity. Nature doesn’t waste energy, it’s trying to communicate with us. And I know most people are gonna say, “Well I don’t listen, pay attention to my dreams or I don’t remember them.” Well, if you pay attention you’d be surprised. If we live to be 80 years old, six years of our lives, six years will be spent dreaming. That’s an extraordinary amount of activity. And I’ll guarantee you, over time, if a person really pays attention to dreams and is humble enough to be open to them, they offer critiques, they offer correctives. And I could be doing all the right things and then my dream life is telling me the opposite, and then I’d better start paying attention to something else that I’ve discarded upto that point.
And then of course, fourthly, is that issue that we’ve touched on before and that’s meaning. If what I’m doing is perhaps difficult, but I experience it as meaningful, that’s the pay-off. I’ve often thought happiness is not the goal of life. We’re told that you’re supposed to be happy. Who said you’re supposed to be happy? You’re here to be here as yourself, as authentic a person as you could be and that sometimes is not going to fit into the world or that’s not going to be pleasing to everybody, maybe not even pleasing to you, but it also feels right. It feels authentic so that your identity, your standpoint, your activities, your investments, your choices are in some way experienced as meaningful. In other words, I can’t imagine anything more meaningful than sharing people’s personal journeys in the way at which I’m privileged to do it as an analyst. I don’t find it enjoyable. I find it painful. I find it the sort of thing that can wake me in the middle of the night as I continued to process it. I find it’s so meaningful that I’m privileged to do it, and the day that arrives when it’s no longer meaningful, I’ll do something else with my life.
Brett McKay: There’s different aspects of your life that are gonna be effective as you make that transition to the second half. One you talk about and your book is your career. Some people, they reach their 50s towards the end of their career and they realize, “I’ve been doing the wrong thing my entire life.” How does someone deal with that? And how do they make that transition to have the courage to do what the thing that their soul says they need to do?
James Hollis: Well… Again, I wanna emphasize the first half of your life isn’t wrong. It’s what seemed to be best at the time so we need to accept ourselves, forgive ourselves perhaps, but then the real question is, what is the path of growth for me? Jung said, “Once we all walk in shoes too small for us.” Which is his way of saying, we live cautious, and timid lives, and lives defined by our histories. Where is your developmental agenda? What do you need to grow? What’s gonna be challenging to you? What’s gonna take you to a different place in your own psyche? That could be within the same work, let’s say, but looked at or approached from a completely different angle, and sometimes it needs to go in an entirely different direction altogether.
My first half of life I was a college professor, and I enjoyed it very much. What was still appealing to me was teaching, so I’ve continued teaching, but I left behind teaching 18-year-olds and it wasn’t anything wrong with being 18, it’s just that there was a conversation that’s possible at 40 to 70 or 80 that is not necessarily possible at 18. So I realized I was spending my time teaching and conversing with people that was not necessarily appropriate for the second half of life, which is one of the reasons I made the transition to being a therapist. I still teach, I still write, and so forth, and at the same time, it’s a different kind of conversation. So sometimes it calls for a radical change, sometimes it’s simply adjustments within the system. We also have to raise that question, which you may or may not wanna talk about, but that is relationships. People will often make commitments out of their particular psychology at say at 20 or 25, and then of course as they evolve and change then they’ll ask themselves, “Why am I with this person?” Or, “How well is this working out?” And that could lead to some very painful conversations as we all know.
In the old days, I used to do a lot of couples work. And the real question is, can a couple evolve in a direction that is mutually growing and developing ’cause if it isn’t, it’s going to be miserable for both of them. And are both parties capable of that, rather than serve a kind of fusion model like, “Alright, you and I will just fuse and become a whole person.” The model for the second half of life is kind of an open-ended structure almost like a Japanese walk that you would cook in. It’s open-ended that supports the growth and development of both parties. And when that’s there, it’s terrific, it’s wonderful, everybody’s developmental process is served. And when one person is stuck and it blocks the other person, it can be very, very difficult as we all know.
Brett McKay: So, I know you’ve written about men before specifically, and the way you described the first half of life about ego building, it seems like men would be really into this sort of thing, success, career, family.
James Hollis: Sure.
Brett McKay: What does that first half of life look like for men and the people you’ve dealt with, the clients you’ve had?
James Hollis: Well, I’ve focused primarily on the, well, let me just mention when I first started my practice back in the 1970s, the ratio of clients that I saw was nine women to one man. Today, it’s the reverse nine men to one woman. And it’s not because I advertised as such, it’s that’s who’s showing up. And I think it’s indicative for men that more and more men realize, we’re in trouble. This is a species in trouble. And it’s more acceptable today to in some way undertake that kind of inquiry with a therapist than that it seemed to be decades ago. But for men, that’s right, many men are stuck. And when you see a man still stuck in the second half of life with thinking it’s about making more money or having more ribbons on your chest or whatever it is. That’s a person who’s still caught in a delusion. And he’s gonna have some serious appointments with his own mortality and aging when the time comes. One of the ways I’ve put it when I’ve spoken with women’s groups who have on occasion asked me to talk about, “Well, tell us about those crazy people called men.” I say, “Try to imagine three things. First of all, cut away from your life, your close friends.” Women always have close friends with whom they can share their deepest concerns and desires and fears and what’s going on in their marriage and their body and their children and so forth.
Those people are gone, they’re vanished forever. Secondly, sever your connection to whatever is your source of guidance and insight within you. Call it your instinct or call it your intuition, whatever you call it, that’s severed. And thirdly, your worth as a person will be defined by meeting external standards so productivity standards created by total strangers you’ll never meet. And when women hear that they’re horrified. And I say, “If you could imagine those three things, first of all, try to imagine how isolating that is. Try to imagine how lonely that is. Try to imagine how Self estranging that is.” And that’s the condition of most men. And invariably, their attitude softens. And most of them have said, “Well, how can we help?” And the answer is, they can’t. It’s up to us as men to begin to challenge some of the things that we live with or some of our own attitudes. And looking with men, I think… I wrote a book years ago called Under Saturn’s shadow, and it was a reference to the mythological history of fathers and sons in which the fathers were devouring the sons and the sons were trying to kill the father. It was all about competition and winners and losers and there was nothing there about support and love and cooperation and true mentoring.
And so, when I wrote that and put it out there I was touched, astonished, humbled by the number of men who wrote from around the world, the Australian outback and Japan, and places like that saying, “I always thought there was something wrong with me but in a sense, this helps me understand myself as a man.” And I was just impressed again with the incredible loneliness of most men. Most men may have a drinking buddy or a tennis buddy or a bowling buddy or guy at work they will have lunch with or something like that. But by and large, men don’t tend to risk true intimacy of sharing the experience that goes on within that sack of skin that they live. And so that isolation is pathologizing. It makes them dependent on sexuality for connection for example, on food, on alcohol, and on external prizes like success and promotion and so forth that might actually be killing them rather than supporting them.
Brett McKay: So every person’s second half of life is gonna look different because every person is different and every person’s soul is gonna be asking something different for them. But for men, generally, when you work with men, what’s the tenor, the mood, or the broad view of what that looks like for a man as they transition? What does the second half look like or feel like for a man?
James Hollis: Well, first of all, I think there are ideas out there. Your program is one of those contributions that were not available, frankly, 50 years ago, when I was in that transitional stage myself. In a month or so I’m gonna be 80 so I’ve been around a while. And by and large, for my father’s era and my youth, you are defined by your roles. As I said, the man is defined by how he meets standards of productivity and whatever field he winds it up. And today, I think far more men are able to look at that and critique it, and to say, “Okay, but that doesn’t necessarily work for me. And I think that’s a certain kind of, this is not true for everyone by any means. Some men are so conditioned by economic hardship or lack of cultural awareness, no fault of their own. This is not an option for them and I agree for those men. But I think for many men, there’s a permission for self-examination. And to perhaps as Thoreau said, “To March the tune of your own drummer.” Because that’s why I find more men coming into therapy, and more men in the audiences when I speak around the world here, so I think a lot has changed.
The sentence I most heard as a child, basically, and many other people have heard was, “Well, what will people think?” Well, it’s still out there and we should not ignore the impact of our decisions on people around us. That’s not the point. But to say, “Is my life defined by fitting in? Does that mean I’m supposed to become a chameleon and fit in with my environmental demands all my life?” When we’re children, we’re often forced to, but at some point, you become a man by sort of figuring out well, who are you and what do you really want with your life? And now how do I go about doing that respectfully, to the well-being of others? But you also have to serve that in a way that may take you away from those collective definitions that were so, so powerful. We realize, “Okay, no, I’m here to serve my soul, not popular assumptions.”
And the power of those popular assumptions has so significantly waned, I think men are freer today by and large, but they’re also adrift. Because for the average man, he knows he doesn’t fit in. But he tends to internalize that as a sense of failure or shame, and that’s a common experience. Most men walk around feeling shame and then trying to hide it from everybody else. But in fact it’s a time for a tremendous opening of possibilities, and that includes the risk of sharing that with another man. Every man has to say at some level, “Do I have a man friend with whom I can share what’s really going on in my life? Really going on, including the really difficult painful parts. And if not, that’s part of my accountability. That’s something that I’m going to have to address, and if I’m ever going to get a richer life.”
Brett McKay: So this might be a first half of life question, and so it might be the wrong question, but let’s say you’re asking those questions, you start to grapple with those second half of life questions. How do you know if you’re on the right path?
James Hollis: Well, what I was suggesting before, is you don’t know. And that’s why I’m saying, first half of life is often a big mistake, but it’s unavoidable. I say that with no judgement whatsoever. I’m just saying, “Alright, you leave home, learn how to support yourself, form friendships and relationships. That’s what you should be doing. That builds your sense of conscious Self, creates ego strength. It creates a sense of accountability in relatedness. That’s good. But is that the right path for you? Well, we’re gonna find that out. We don’t know yet. And that’s why I said, I had achieved all my goals by my 30s, and all I knew for a while, as I began to feel the sort of energy slip away from me, all I knew to do is ramp ’em up, and that’s when the depression hit. Now, I didn’t know that the depression was my friend. That’s kind of a peculiar sentence, but I didn’t know that that was again my encounter with my own soul. My soul was speaking. I thought well, like every… Anybody, “How quickly do I get rid of this? Rather than ask this very fundamental question, “Why has it come? What is it wanting from me?” That’s a different question. So the truth is, you don’t know.
And even a second half of life, you don’t know often. You have to explore, you have to put yourself out there, you have to be willing to try things. Because again, if it’s right for you, your systems, as I mentioned, the feeling systems, the energy systems, the dreams, the sense of purpose and meaning, those things will support you. They’ll rise to be there for you. Yung said once, “We all have to find what supports us when nothing supports us.” So sometimes you really have to have the courage, or the desperation to set off on your own and say, “This is what I’m gonna risk, and so forth.” So when I traveled to Switzerland for retraining at mid-life, there was nothing in my environment that was supportive of that per se. It was prohibitive in terms of income and everything else, but I felt, “This is something I have to do. If I don’t do this, I die,” so to speak. The body would continue, but something in the soul would die. But did I know where it was going? No. Did I plan to change my career? No. That’s what was disclosed by being on the road. And you have to be on the road, so to speak, to find out where your directions are.
Brett McKay: Right. “We live life forward”, kierkegaard said.
James Hollis: Yeah, yeah. And as I’ve said, forgive yourself for mistakes, because if you learn from it, there’s no such thing as a mistake. You say, “What do I need to learn from that? Now I know that, that I’ll factor into my decisions in the future.”
Brett McKay: Well, Jim, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about your book and your work?
James Hollis: Well, I have a website simply jameshollis.net. And certainly books are on Amazon and other places like that, so I hope those books… I’ve always thought of books as trying to share this kind of conversation with people I haven’t met out there. And so, I never wrote books to make money. You don’t make a lot of money from this, but I certainly think of it as serving that teaching vocation, which I’ve always experienced, and if people read it and find something of value there, then and I feel deeply grateful to being part of that.
Brett McKay: Well Jim, thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
James Hollis: You’re welcome sir, and good luck to you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. James Hollis. He’s the author of the book, “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally Really Grow Up.” It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, jameshollis.net. Also check it at our show notes at aom.is/secondhalf, where you can find links to resources, really delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast, and I wanna let you know that right now, we’ve got an enrollment going on for the Strenuous Life, strenuouslife.co, talked about its online platform that we created to help put your intentions into actions. We’ve done that by creating a series of 50 different badges based around 50 different skills. We also have accountability for fitness, doing a good deed, thinking outside of yourself. And we provide weekly challenges that are gonna push you outside of your comfort zone in different ways. So go check it out, strenuouslife.co. Hope to see you there, and if you like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so at Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS, at check out to get a three-month trial of Stitcher Premium. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM Podcast, and if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continuing support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only to listen to AOM Podcast, put what you’ve heard into action.