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Alone on the High Seas of the Soul (by James Hollis)

Dernière mise à jour : 29 mai 2021

Leonid Pasternak - Alexander Pushkin at the Seashore, 1896

Extract from:

James Hollis

Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places


The Silence of Infinite Spaces

In his Pensées, the French mathematician-mystic Blaise Pascal wrote,

"The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me."

Who has not awakened at four in the morning and felt horribly alone, vulnerable and afraid ? Who has not experienced the silence of the infinite spaces without and the infinite spaces within ? Who has not intimated in the leaf's fall the evanescence of things human and one's aloneness on the planet, as e.e. cummings's poem so starkly illustrates ?

Or, as Robert Frost expressed it,

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between starson stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost, "Desert Places"

Who has not felt insufficient to meet the demands of life, and wished for some deliverance ? Who has not watched the familiar slip away and felt thrown back solely on one's own meager resources ?

.. even the comforting barn grows far away.

And my heart owns a doubt

Whether 'tis in us to arise with day

And save ourselves unaided.

Robert Frost, "Storm Fear

In each of these swampland states there is a developmental task. Just as Jung suggested that in each therapy one should ask what task this person is avoiding through his or her neurosis, so we have to ask what task is implicit in each of these dismal places.

In every case it is some variant of gaining permission, leaving a dependency or finding the courage to stand vulnerably and responsibly before the universe. In every case we are challenged to grow up, to take on the journey with greater consciousness. While such enlargement is often terrifying, it is also freeing and brings dignity and meaning to our lives.

... It could be said that the neurotic, and that includes most of us, is his or her own worst enemy racked with guilt and a sense of failure, haunted by inadequacies. ... Given the fact that the top priority of the ego is security, doubt is an unwelcome visitor to us. At times we may even be overwhelmed and paralyzed by it. The German word for doubt, Zweifeln suggests the split we feel when we experience doubt. How to admit doubt, which is the precursor for all growth, without being overwhelmed and paralyzed by it, is no small task.

The ego is like a petty tyrant who must fulminate on the rightness of its position as a compensation for the swamp of doubt upon which its castle is built. Tennyson noted, "There lives more faith in honest doubt, / Believe me, than in half the creeds." And Wilson Mizner echoed, "I respect faith. But doubt is what gets you an education." The position which is intractable, which cannot reflect on itself, which cannot critique itself, is fascistic, monolithic, stuck.

"Loyalty to petrified opinion," observed Goethe, "never yet broke a chain, or freed a human soul." Such petrified opinion can be a political or religious dogma, or, closer to home, our own reified sense of self. With doubt, of course, comes greater angst, hence the many defenses mounted against it. Risking doubt means risking greater anxiety. But to risk greater anxiety is to open to the enlargement of personality against which our rigid standpoint is a defense.

Most of us have only truly grown when our ego's haughty power was brought down. When our walls were broken, a new perspective became possible. Thus, the doubt which keeps alive the dialectical values, and therefore protects a culture from reification and stagnation, also serves to enliven the personality and stimulate it to evolve.

Caspar David Friedrich - The Monk by the Sea (1810)

Alone on the High Seas of the Soul

Life, consciousness and the fearsome journey of the soul all begin with traumatic separation. Connected to the heartbeat of the cosmos, all needs met in the warm, wet world of the womb, we are suddenly thrust onto a cold, spinning planet falling through space and time. We never recover, nor can we ever fully reexperience our sense of participation mystique, our identification, with the universe. How much of an exaggeration is it to say that all of our life is spent trying either to recover that lost connection by some form of regressive impulse or to sublimate this deep need into a search for connection with nature. with others, with the gods ?

But the connections are never sustainable nor complete and one feels the angst and anguish of disconnection. of one's aloneness in the cosmos. Even when connection seems to have occurred. one quickly becomes acutely, painfully, apprised of one's isolation anew.

Rilke said it well in his poem "Loneliness": though

"in one bed we sleep together / Loneliness goes on then with the rivers."

Thomas Wolfe describes the ubiquity and importance of the experience of loneliness:

"The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. . . All this hideous doubt, despair, and dark confusion of the soul a lonely man must know, for he is united to no image save that which he creates himself. . . He is sustained and cheered and aided by no party, he is given comfort by no creed, he has no faith in him except his own. And often that faith deserts him, leaving him shaken and filled with impotence."

Wolfe's view is rather bleaker than that of most of us who have from time to time drawn comfort and community from others. But his dramatic isolation was also the wellspring from which he generated his voluminous efforts to connect with the cosmos once again. Though his theme was most often exile and loneliness, his creative output connected him with many readers through the years. While it is true that we can't go home again, it is also true that in a universe of exiles, when people's paths intersect, the journey itself may seem like a home, with the Other present for the while. No small thing.

Clark Moustakis observes:

"Loneliness is a condition of human life, an experience of being human which enables the individual to sustain, extend, and deepen his humanity. . . . Efforts to overcome or escape the existential experience of loneliness can result only in self-alienation. When man is removed from a fundamental truth of life, when he successfully evades and denies the terrible loneliness of individual existence, he shuts himself off from the one significant avenue of his own self-growth."

Moustakis's final point is critical here, for it is precisely when we are thrown back on our own resources that we are obliged to find who we are, of what we are made, and generate from that soul-stuff the richest possible person we can manage in the transient moments we are allowed. It is precisely our aloneness that permits our uniqueness to unfold. The more we are enmeshed with others, the less differentiated, the less individuated we are; the less individuated, the less we serve the greater purposes of the cosmos for which we were so mysteriously generated.

Jung's concept of individuation, far from being an exercise in narcissism, is in fact a humble acquiescence to the great powers that move the stars and stir our sinews. Individuation, by definition, is the advancement of the cosmos through the fullest possible development of the individual who carries that cosmos in a differentiated way. To regress, to seek togetherness, to abstain from the journey toward one's fuller self, is not only soul-crime, it is a denial of the universe itself.

... When we are not alone when we are on our own, then we have achieved solitude. The person who attains solitude is alone in his or her unique experience of the journey, yet such a person is conscious of an inner presence with which to dialogue. Out of such dialogue the individuation process moves forward. How tragic, then, the repudiation of such an opportunity for growth. One may only become an individual by giving assent to this dialogue, by conscious and constant valuing of the autonomy and teleology of one's soul."

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