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Book review

What Matters Most

Living a More Considered Life

by James Hollis

What Matters Most by James Hollis

There’s an awful lot to like about this book, but it’s not a straightforward read. Hollis seems to relish obscure words and his text isn’t always easy to parse: as Benjamin Disraeli once said of William Gladstone, he seems at times almost “inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”. Having said which, it’s a style thing, and it perhaps made me slow down my reading and forced me to engage more with the meaning, which was all to the good, as there’s a lot to engage with here.

When I started reading, I knew nothing of Hollis, nor of his other books, so I didn’t realise that he was by trade a distinguished psychoanalyst in the Jungian tradition. This soon becomes evident, as a lot of the book centres around the kinds of myths by which we live our lives, and the potential to transform ourselves (or at least our view of ourselves) by engaging with those myths:

“We are all exiles, whether we know it or not, for who among us feels truly, vitally linked to the four great orders of mystery: the cosmos, nature, the tribe, and self?”

I was new to a lot of this, and really enjoyed the discussion. It’s about how you confront the world:

“The dragon shows up every day, no worse for the wear, and ready to scare you back into a corner of your life, to swallow you, and to annihilate the life energy you are supposed to incarnate in this world.”

That’s our challenge, then. We must continue to show up, to face our difficulties, our boredom, our anxieties, and to live so our “daily discipline becomes: That Life Not Be Governed by Fear”. Scattered throughout the book are anecdotes taken from Hollis’s clients, which speak to these deep concerns and to the undercurrents of our lives:

Angela walks away from her marriage of twenty years. Safe, secure, valued by all, including her husband, she walks away. Why? When asked, she mumbles, “I wanted to know that I wasn’t dead yet.”

It’s about understanding our anxieties and our neurosis. Our daily lives tend to become “anxiety management systems”, but are to deeply buried that we don’t even know that this is what we’re doing, nor quite the extent to which we’re doing it. None of which is easy. In fact, in many ways it wasn’t meant to be easy – and anyone who tells you different is selling somehting:

“Why do we have psychologists in the media who conveniently fail to verify the contradictions with which we all daily live, the necessary suffering that is a by-product of real life, rather than suggest that three easy steps will bring us happiness and material affluence

Ultimately, we must become larger people – “step into largeness”, living life by verbs (actions we take), not nouns (things we own, or static truths). Or we can choose not to do that, and live instead on the scraps from the tables of other lives, which we falsely imagine somehow to be more meaningful than our own:

“The world is full of people droning on, sitting before the telly or the Internet, waiting to die, living only for small sensations of scandal or vicarious catastrophe that they can witness from afar.”

It’s our choice, though. Growth, or security – you can’t have both. It’s clear which Hollis is striving for, and although he offers us no “ten steps” or “twelve rules”, no map at all, he perhaps is offering us a compass that will give us our heading, as we cross whatever terrain our lives hold.

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