Embracing The New: Avoiding a Routinized Life

On my printer I have pasted a quote from Odysseus who, two and a half millennia ago, said, “I will stay with it and endure through suffering hardship / and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to pieces, then I will swim.”

Why is this quote there, of the many possible? Odysseus was fully aware of his perilous position on the high seas. At various isles, he and his comrades had to fight monsters on the one hand and resist the sundry seductions of sensual slumber on the other. Whether battling Polyphemus, or leaving the Isle of the Lotus Eaters, or traversing the clashing rocks, he knew that he had to press forward, or drown in fear or lethargy in the wine dark sea.

Every morning we awake and we face the same perils as that ancient mariner. At the foot of our beds two grinning gremlins wait to greet us. One is called Fear and the other is called Lethargy. Fear snarls in familiar form: “Don’t go out there. It is too big for you. You are not up to it!” Some days he wins and we stay safe, close to the harbor of habit and shores of familiar contour. Lethargy says: “Chill out. Have a chocolate. Turn on the telly or the Internet. Tomorrow’s another day.” His voice is equally dangerous for we secretly long for such sibilant seduction. One of the four rivers of classical Hell was Lethe. Drinking of its waters made one forget all. Frequently, Homer tells us, Odysseus’s comrades succumbed to fear, and fled, or lethargy, and “forgot” their journey.

It is troubling to me that so many of us, so many of our days, succumb to fear and lethargy. Some days we spend mindlessly distracted by the diversions of popular culture. Some days we are numbed by the press of duties, legitimate claims of work and relationship, and little is left over. Some days we simply forget to show up. But how are we to “show up,” and in service to what, remain compelling questions, and worthy of periodic reflection.

Jung once observed that our neuroses were in fact our private religions, that is, where the bulk of our spirit is actually invested. H. L. Mencken once observed that one could hardly go broke under-estimating the taste of the American public. I would change that to suggesting that one cannot go broke under-estimating the role anxiety management systems play in governing our lives. This is natural given the fact that we are both launched on a perilous journey, which ends sooner or later in death, and are conscious of this prospect all the while.

No wonder we spend so much time hiding, or seeking distraction. Such diversion is understandable even as it is lethal. Nearly four centuries ago the French mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal observed that the court had to invent the jester because even the King might grow troubled if he were obliged to reflect upon himself. Pascal concluded that divertissement, or diversion, had become the chief role of popular culture. How much greater are the jester-like distractions of our time.

The majority of persons I see in analytic therapy are in their 50s and 60s. All have achieved productive lives and possess considerable capacity for insight and self-direction. This is what has brought them to therapy for, as Jung observed in the 1920s, more people came to him because of “the general aimlessness of life” than overt psychopathology. When I mentioned this fact in a recent radio interview, the interviewer, herself educated, said, “But we were told in graduate school that old people didn’t really change.” I don’t know who those instructors were, or how old they were, but they were wrong.

Of course as people age they can grow ever more cautious, timid, fearful, rigid, and resistant to change. We see that in the divisions which beset our country now. But is 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. As I have put it elsewhere, 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?

If we think our life dull, routinized and repetitive, we may profitably think more on our predecessor, our brother, Odysseus, and why someone 2,700 years ago thought it so important to write about the twin perils of fear and lethargy. It seems as if they have been our companions for a very long time now; yet every day we are summoned anew to high adventure on the tenebrous seas of the soul. Living our lives, and not someone else’s, calls us to voyage, and if our familiar structures falter, then we swim.

James Hollis, Ph.D., Jungian analyst in Houston, TX, author of the recently released book, Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives and the best-selling book, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life.





The Depression Machine: Why Too Much Stress Cranks It Up

I listened to a NPR segment this week about the connection between playing football in the NFL and brain trauma.

One retired running back said that each collision he suffered during a game “was like being in a car accident.” What a tremendous cost to pay, I thought.

For many of us, daily life is so demanding and stressful, that, like a football player, it’s like being in a series of car accidents. The word “stress” doesn’t even seem to do justice the corrosive experience of so much stress– “trauma” is more like it.

The trauma isn’t the type inflicted by bone jarring hits during a football game — it’s psychological, though no less real.


In his book, The Everyday Trauma of Life, psychiatrist Mark Epstein writes in a recent New York Times article,

“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death (and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.”

Such trauma not only impacts our psychological/emotional and spiritual selves, but our physical brains.


In a brilliant article in The Wall Street Journal this week entitled, “Stress Starts Up The Machinery of Major Depression”, Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., points out that there are many factors that increase our risk of major depression including genes, childhood trauma, and endocrine and immunological abnormalities.

But a frequent trigger is stress.

Sapolsky writes, “The stress angle concerns ‘adhedonia,’ psychiatric jargon for ‘the inability to feel pleasure.’ Adhedonia is at the core of the classic definition of major depression as ‘malignant sadness’”.

As a person who has a genetic history of depression in his family and childhood trauma, I was drawn into Sapolsky’s article. What was the connection between stress and the malignant sadness I’ve experienced off and on since being diagnosed with depression twelve years ago?

Who would have thought that rat brain research would help me understand the link?

Sapolsky gives us a little background about our brain structure by letting us know that our abilities to anticipate, pursue and feel pleasure revolve around a neurotransmitter called dopamine in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Then he turns to the rats for further illumination:

“Put a novel object – say, a ball – in a mouse’s cage. When the mouse encounters the ball and explores it, the arousing mystery, puzzle and challenge cause the release of a molecule in the nucleus accumbens called CRF, which boost dopamine release. If an unexpected novel object was a cat, that mouse’s brain would work vey differently. But getting the optimal amount of challenge, what we’d call ‘stimulation,’ feels good.”

We humans need just enough challenge and stress to make life interesting.

“CRF mediates this reaction: Block the molecule’s actions with a drug, and you eliminate the dopamine surge and the exploration,” writes Sapolsky. “But exposing a mouse to major, sustained stress for a few days changes everything. CRF no longer enhances dopamine release, and the mouse avoids the novel object. Moreover, the CRF is now aversive: Spritz it into the nucleus accumbens, and the mouse now avoids the place in the cage where that happened. The researchers showed that this is due to the effects of stress hormones called glucocorticoids. A switch has been flipped; stimuli that would normally evoke motivated exploration and a sense of reward now evoke the opposite. Strikingly, those few days of stress caused that anhedonic state to last in those mice for at least three months.”

Sapolsky concludes:

“But meanwhile, these findings have an important implication. Life throws lousy things at us; at times, we all get depressed, with a small letter “d.” And most people—as the clichés say—get back in the saddle; prove that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. What then to make of people who are incapacitated by major depression in the clinical sense? Unfortunately, for many, an easy explanation is that the illness is a problem of insufficient gumption: ‘Come on, pull yourself together.’ There is a vague moral taint.”

The trauma of everyday stress is an important player in major depression. When combined with genetic history and a difficult childhood, it can tip the applecart and result in what Andrew Solomon calls “The Noonday Demon”.   The takeaway is that the better we get at managing the “trauma of everyday life”, the better chance we have at preventing depression.

My worry is that the society we’ve created and the hectic lives we lead make the management of stress very difficult, indeed.




Hope Has The Final Say: A Lawyer Shares His Pain

I made a new friend this week.

A lawyer from down south emailed me.  He had found me through my website. He told me about some terrible and unexpected turns his life had taken recently which had plummeted him into a major depression.

I e-mailed him back and said that I would like to speak with him by phone.

I learned that his drop into the well of depression wasn’t his first experience with this terrible illness. He had gone through a bad episode twenty-five years ago, but since then nothing until his most recent crash.

During our thirty-minute talk, I felt the rawness of his pain in his voice.  I recognized this sound all too well.  It was the pain of depression.

He told me that the only respite he felt was when he fell asleep because it was only in this state of unconscious that he had some relief from the grinding wheels of depression.

I also learned that he was married, a father of four and had worked very hard for over twenty-five years as a lawyer.  He was a Catholic who prayed often. He felt horrible about the pain and anxiety his depression had caused his wife and children.  He told me that he felt comfortable talking with me because I was a lawyer and someone who had been through depression.  As we talked, his voice became a little lighter and his tone a bit more optimistic.

I don’t attribute to anything I did.

Instead, I see it more as a testament to this central truth about life on earth: It is in sharing with one another our stories that we heal.

And I believe that we’re all called to be healers of one another.

And in listening to one another’s stories, we learn that suffering doesn’t have the final say.

And in this truth, we find hope.

Depression Part Two

From the award-winning blog Hyperbole and a Half, a piece about how this depression sufferer felt nothing but emotions in the beginning of her depression journey, but over time felt nothing but their absence.  Read the Blog

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