Review: James Hollis’s “What Matters Most”

by Miles Raymer


James Hollis’s What Matters Most is a lively piece of nonfiction that pulled me in different directions. Written in a style that is energetic but deeply affected, the book is a series of essays that reflect on the nature of human existence and the ways in which we might lead better or worse lives. One would be foolish to deny that there’s a lot of useful lessons buried in these pages, but their potency is diluted by the frustrating influence of psychoanalytic ideology.

Intellectual consonance with the psychoanalytic tradition has always been a challenge for me, and I found Hollis’s Jungian frameworks off-putting in the same ways I’ve come to expect from similar thinkers. While Jungians seem at least slightly saner than Freudians, they still traffic in the same anachronistic concepts that modern science has exposed as either oversimplifications of more complex phenomena or complete folderol. The book is riddled with hapless descents into dream analysis, vague analyses of the “psyche,” and anecdotes from Hollis’s professional practice that are likely to annoy readers who haven’t already drunk the psychoanalytic Kool-Aid.

The most bothersome aspect of What Matters Most is how Hollis employs the concept of the psyche/Self/soul to generate an oppositional relationship between the reader and his/her sense of personal identity. This antiquated approach pits each person against some “essential” version of themselves that exists “down deep” and contains the keys to our liberation and growth. For example:

When life is lived in accord with the psyche’s intent, we experience inner harmony, supportive energy, feeling confirmation, and we experience our lives as meaningful. When we, or the world, violate the intent of the psyche, we suffer symptoms; we pathologize on personal or collective bases. (35)

This classic intellectual ploy is designed to convince people that there’s something inside of us that knows intuitively how our lives ought to be led, and that living well is largely a matter of “listening hard enough” to that internal compass––whatever that means. It can be a comforting thought, but it falls apart in the context of modern psychology and neuroscience, which render impotent the assertion of a “true self” that speaks to us through the language of mental “symptoms” or “pathologies.” More importantly, this perspective can be dangerous when taken seriously because it privileges personal introspection (highly unreliable and endlessly biased) over information and feedback from the outside world (still often unreliable but generally less so).

Here’s another instance of the same problem:

We are subject to the conditions fate presents to us––our genetics, our family of origins and its core dynamics, and our zeitgeist. All of these settings embody messages, and demand a measure of compliance…These necessary internalizations of messages, these adaptations to their demands, these scripts, mean that we progressively lose contact with our own instinctual guidance. Thus, for most of us, the issue of “permission” to be who we are––separate, distinct, individual sojourners with differing goals––remains denied within. (64-5)

Here again, we encounter the conceptual splitting of identity: Alien, “internalized messages” conflict with the native, “instinctual guidance” to which we ought to be more attentive. To Hollis, the conditions of life are outside of (and often opposed to) who we “really are”––the purest version of ourselves that will blossom if we can only manage to let it out.

In my experience, constructing identity this way generates an unnecessary and distracting fiction. Within this fiction, life becomes an inevitable and permanent struggle between the demands of the world and the demands of the psyche, instead of a journey in which we are invited to realize that the psyche is illusory, and that the process of engaging with and responding to life’s conditions is all we are. This revelation can be upsetting and difficult to put into practice, but it’s the only way I know of to escape the confining idea that the path to freedom is to make the world accommodate our psyche’s desires and intentions. Instead, we should give up any commitment to the psyche and embrace the impermanent, transient natures of both our world and ourselves.

This fallacious distinction pervades What Matters Most, making it a less enlightening and more confusing book than it needs to be. The good news is that Hollis’s text still contains a healthy dose of genuine wisdom. His intellectual roots are impressively eclectic, revealing a keen understanding of how mythology and symbolism affect our notions of the ineluctable and the possible:

No one lives without myth. Anyone who thinks so is very unconscious. The only question is what mythologies, what fragments, what admonitions, what retreats or flights, what tropic desires have sovereignty in our lives and make our choices for us. (161)

The place where Hollis’s worldview resonates most profoundly with mine is his advocacy for a vigorous relationship with the lived experiences of ambiguity, mystery, loss and death:

An ability to tolerate the anxiety generated by ambiguity is what allows us to respect, engage, and grow from our repeated, daily encounters with the essential mysteries of life. But the payoff goes even further. Certainty begets stagnation, but ambiguity pulls us deeper into life. Unchallenged conviction begets rigidity, which begets regression; but ambiguity opens us to discovery, complexity, and therefore growth. The health of our culture, and the magnitude of our personal journeys, require that we learn to tolerate ambiguity, in service to a larger life. (27)

We are challenged to live forward––toward and through the many deaths that meet us on a daily basis. Throughout our history, every growth, every change of developmental significance, has been accompanied by a loss of some kind, a price to be paid for the next step of the journey. Whether it was learning to cross the street on our own, learning to take care of ourselves when no one else would, or at this moment learning to stand honestly before loss and death, we grow, paradoxically, by losing something. (224-5)

In the end, our lives will be governed by mysteries, not certainties. In the end, whatever is larger than our constructs and beliefs and denials, will prove most worthy of our respect, our humility, and our considered beliefs. This is the experience of meaning. If we want our lives to be meaningful, we need to understand that meaning will not be found through any arrival at certainty, for any place we settle will soon prove inadequate. Meaning will arise from sundry departures from certainties, obligatory deaths and rebirths, and surprising new arrivals from which, then, new departures perforce persist. This is meaning. (230, emphasis his)

Clearly a compassionate and observant fellow, Hollis has spent a long career trying to help people improve their lives––or at least their relationship with the idea of being alive. What Matters Most is an expression of that desire to help. While I don’t share some of Hollis’s fundamental assumptions, I find no quarrel with his underlying motivations. 

Rating: 5/10