James Hollis & the second half of life

Did I mention that I have been reading the Jungian analyst James Hollis this summer? Hollis has written several books on what he calls the second half of life. I am not in any way ready for making a meaningful, abridged, account of his perspective on life. But I might give you a glimpse into his way of thinking:

It is only in the second half of life, according to Hollis, that we can truly come to know who we are and thus create a life that has meaning. The transit of the Middle Passage is a clash between the learned (acquired) personality and the demands of the real Self; the first must die and be replaced by the person one wishes to be. Although it can be a source of enormous anxiety, this death and rebirth is not an end, it is a transition in order to live one’s full potential and arrive at the life-giving place of mature aging.

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Image – Mária Švarbová,  Source: mariasvarbova.com
To become a person does not necessarily mean to be well adjusted, well adapted, approved of by others. It means to become who you are. We are meant to become more eccentric, more peculiar, more odd. We are not meant just to fit in. We are here to be different. We are here to be the individual.


In What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, Hollis suggest that the single most important task of the second half of life is the recovery of personal authority, namely, the discovery of what is true for us, really true, and mobilizing the courage and resources to live our truth in the world. Sounds simple, but it is the most difficult thing we will ever do.

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Image – Mária Švarbová,  Source: mariasvarbova.com 

You might think that old people don’t really change, Hollis thinks differently:

Of course as people age they can grow ever more cautious, timid, fearful, rigid, and resistant to change. But 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.

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?

In the end, Hollis says, we need to feel that the life we lived was our life, not someone else’s, that it was chosen rather simply our following the instructions on the box, and that we stood in a respectful relationship to that which is larger than ordinary comforts and provided a deep sense of meaning, of satisfaction, and reciprocity. Then it may be said that we have really been here, living the life we were meant to live. The task, and the path we take in addressing it, will be different for each of us, but that is the gift we are asked to share, the gift of our separate selves.


All images Mária Švarbová

Maria Svarbova was born in 1988; she currently lives in Slovakia. Despite studying restoration and archeology, her preferred artistic medium is photography. 

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Rio says:

    well, for a small sampling, I think I might agree with him. at 60+ i find situations arise that are familiar but now I am aware of choices. when i was young i often felt trapped even in happy situations. perhaps that is the difference. i no longer believe happiness is a goal and so i am less likely to get trapped in places i wandered looking for it.
    is this who i was meant to be when i was born? i don’t believe in pre-determination, except as a literary device. who i am is far more interesting to me now perhaps because i now have the time to think about it. i get tired, i have to sit down and then sometimes i find i am thinking about things… oddly, i feel happy often now it is no longer important.

  2. Sigrun says:

    Sounds like something Hollis would agree upon 😉

  3. Harriet Palmer Wood says:

    Thank you, Sigrun. I’ll keep following you…81 and still curious! Happy when I’m painting,
    My way of getting in touch with who I am!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, Harriet! I believe Hollis, in the tradition of Jung, understands making art as a great way of individuation.

  4. Beth says:

    Thank you for this. I will read Hollis now. What he says here seems completely true to me and to my own life-path. I especially like the question, “What wants to come into the world through me?”

    In the first half of life we are so caught up in pleasing others, building up a life structure, following out expectations. But our true nature is to move toward freedom, and individuation that paradoxically allows us to give much more to others — or so it seems to me

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, Beth – I’m sure you will find James Hollis to be interesting company!

  5. Gunta says:

    I very much like this way of thinking or being. Frankly the early years were far too filled with angst and conflict. It’s such a relief to seek a life that has meaning and to leave the youthful follies behind. Thank you for this recommendation.

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