Been thinking about life and mortality today. I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn’t matter. But it kinda does.”
That was the tweet sent out recently by Representative Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who was one of an untold many exposed to the novel coronavirus at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The congressman closed his office and remained at his Arizona residence for the duration of his seclusion. It was from here that he sent out his tweet. It was mocked on social media, with tweeters encouraging the “would-be Spartan” to enlist in the army.
And yet, Gosar’s observation remains poignant. Most people would like to think they have a destiny, that their lives won’t end in some meaningless way from a bat-generated virus.
Gosar’s observation represents a battle between our public face and the feeling in our soul that God wants us for a different kind of destiny. In psychological terms, it’s the battle between the ego and the subconscious.
As psychologist James Hollis had observed, the ego is in charge of the “executive function.” It allows us to drive to work, pay bills, have well-behaved children, and present a civilized face to friends and colleagues. The subconscious, on the other hand, is a place of myth, desire, fate, and legend. It’s where we confront the life we were meant to live. The life of Jesus is a representation of this. The Lord had a regular childhood and adolescence, then performed his public ministry, but during it all his subconscious soul and connection to God were leading him, inexorably, to his destiny the cross. And even he had a moment when he wanted the cup to pass away from him.
Dynamism Over Nihilism
Gosar’s tweet reveals a wrestling match between ego and subconscious, or between our will and God’s. Thinking about life and mortality, the subconscious desires honor, valor, a glorious ending. The ego intrudes and attempts an override, saying that “it doesn’t matter.” Then the subconscious pushes back: But it kinda does. Dying with honor for a great cause, obeying God’s will for us, matters.
Hollis is the executive director of the Jung Society in Washington, D.C., where I recently saw him give a series of lectures. The disruption caused by the coronavirus has given his ideas fresh potency, as people are second-guessing their careers and starting to consider their destinies. (Honestly—do we really need as many journalists as we have?)
At one lecture Hollis observed that the ego is nothing but a “thin wafer of consciousness floating on an iridescent ocean called the soul.” The powerful, archetypal forces of the unconscious—which Hollis also calls the psyche or “the gods”—are a tectonic force that has its own plan. Ignoring this destiny can cause depression, anxiety, addiction, and listlessness.
“When we are off track, psyche protests,” Hollis writes in his book What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life. “Noisy demonstrations are held in the amphitheatre of the body; streets are blocked in the brain by rebels from the cane fields; dreams are invaded by spectral disturbances; affects riot and tear down the work of years.”
As journalist Oliver Burkeman observed, “This is a radical and humbling way of thinking about psychology. It means that what you think you want from life probably isn’t what life wants from you. And it means that living meaningfully is almost certainly going to screw with your plans, forcing you out of comfort and certainty, and into suffering and the unknown.” Hollis quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by ever greater things.” To be fully alive, the soul has to “meet its appointment.”
While people may dismiss Hollis (and Jung) as New Age, his writing is grounded in a sober reality that is absent in the sunny bromides of too many Christians. It’s also far more dynamic than the dull nihilism of the elites and the young.
Myth, Legend, Destiny
There are arguments to be made against Hollis’s approach. One of the problems in the Western world over the last several decades is that more and more people neglected their obligations to explore their destiny, often leaving broken families in their wake. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” was used by Woody Allen to defend his marriage to his step-daughter. The power of myth to chart an unavoidable fate rendered characters in the dismal recent “Star Wars” movies as helpless and robotic. The young partiers in Florida getting water during the pandemic look more lost than followers of the soul’s code.
This is why age is important to the concept of embracing your destiny. Hollis’s book titles reveal this: Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, and Middle Passage. For the first few decades of our lives we are at the mercy of external forces that we have no control over: family, environment, the politics of our time, and our social status are constantly affecting the way we see the world, often so powerfully that we, as Hollis notes, “wind up living someone else’s life.” It is only in middle age that we can begin to break free from the forces that shaped us. It’s important that we follow our bliss, but we’ll only have the wisdom to do so when we’ve been alive for a while and can begin to untangle what has influenced us.
There is an exception to this rule: the worlds of sports and the arts. Professional sports teams gain certainty that it is “their year” to win it all, performers feel a destiny at a young age and embrace it. Brad Pitt once noted that there was a point when he was a young man in high school that he had a certainty that he was going to be famous.
Rock and roll is replete with songs about “destiny” and forces that are going to make life or love happen no matter what. In their 2014 song “Cedarwood Road,” Irish band U2 explores how their fateful meeting seemed to be destined. It opens:
I was running down the road
The fear was all I knew
I was looking for a soul that’s real
Then I ran into you
And that cherry blossom tree
Was a gateway to the sun
And friendship, once it’s won
It’s won, it’s one
Just across the river to the Southside
That’s a long way here
All the green and all the gold
The hurt you hide
The joy you hold
The foolish pride
That gets you out the door
Up on Cedarwood, Cedarwood Road
This is a powerful distillation of Hollis’s thesis. Bono was not hunting for fame but “looking for a soul that’s real”—i.e. letting himself be led by the subconscious and not the ego. He meets guitarist the Edge, their coming together “a gateway to the sun.”
Bono is operating in the realm of myth, legend, destiny. His environment, Ireland in the 1980s, is a place rife with politics and violence, as represented in the colors of green and gold and hard geographical boundaries. Yet he will embrace the “foolish pride” that gets him out the door and onto the world stage.
The last lyric in the song is “a heart that is broken is a heart that is open.” Bono has met his soul’s appointment to the world’s stage, where he will be “defeated by even greater things.” People might say that ultimately it doesn’t matter if U2 had ever gotten out of Dublin. But it kinda does.