Book notes: Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

There is nothing new or surprising in James Hollis’ Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. As Hollis himself writes, “this book is simply telling you what you already know, and have always known”.

I picked up this book after reading Hollis’ The Middle Passage, which I enjoyed earlier this year. Published 12 years after the publication of The Middle Passage, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life revisits the same themes, albeit more verbosely and with a small nod towards a practical path forward, in the form of a final chapter with some reflection questions for the reader to ponder (I summarize these questions at the bottom of this entry).

Finding Meaning is deeply steeped in a conservative white male American worldview, individualistic, heteronormatively gendered, pierced through with either-or thinking that pitches “collectivity” in opposition to the needs of the self, and equates Marxism with fascism as equally unsubtle and evil beliefs. Hollis regales us with lines such as “making a living is easier than liberating the soul”, which feel woefully out of touch when read in 2020.

Although the book is flawed and Hollis offers no magic bullet, I benefitted from reminders and new perspectives on the core idea in the book: that we ought to work to become more ourselves as we age, and that the only way to do so is through deep reflection and a quest to understand ourselves.

If you are interested in the more philosophical aspects of the book, I would recommend instead reading The Middle Passage, which is much more brief and I found less aggravating.

Summary of reflection questions

These questions are excerpted from chapter eleven, The Healing of the Soul. They might make good fodder for journaling prompts.

  • What has brought you to this place in your journey, this moment in your life?
  • What gods, what forces, what family, what social environment have framed your reality, perhaps supported, perhaps constricted it?
  • Why, even when things are going well, do things not feel quite right?
  • Why does so much seem a disappointment, a betrayal, a bankruptcy of expectations?
    • “The simplest answer to these questions is found in the fact that so much we do serves the value of collectivity and violates the essential nature of our individual selves.”
  • Why do you believe that you have to hide so much, from others, from yourself?
    • “What once passed for amiability, for a cooperative spirit, for “niceness”, becomes, in the second hafl of life, an unacceptable liability.”
  • Why does life seem a script written elsewhere, and you barely consulted, if at all?
  • Why have you come to this book, or why has it come to you, now?
    • “Upon reflection, this book is simply telling you what you already know, and have always known.”
  • Why does the idea of the soul both trouble and feel familiar, like a long-lost companion?
  • Is the life you are living too small for your soul’s desire?
    1. Where has life, in its unfairness, stuck you, fixated you, caused you to circle back and back upon this wounding as a provisional definition and limitation of your possibilities? Why do you continue to cooperate with the wound, rather than serve something larger, which serves you in return?
    2. Where has life blessed you, given you a gift? And what have you done with that gift? How have you accepted the responsibility that goes with it?
    3. Where are you blocked by fear, stuck, rigid, resistant to change?
    4. What is the fear beneath the fear?
    5. Where was your futher stuck, and where has that stuck place shown up in your life? Where was your mother stuck, and where has that stuck place shown up in your life? Are you repeating their lives, their patterns, or trying to overcome them by compensation, or treating the problem in a way that brings harm and further self-alienation?
    6. Where do you avoid conflict, the necessary conflict of values, and therefore avoid living in fidelity with who you are?
    7. What ideas, habits, behavioral patterns are holding you back from the large journey of the soul? What secondary gains do you receive by staying mired in the old–security, predictability, validation from others?
    8. Where are you still looking for permission to live your life?
    9. Where do you need to grow up? When will this happen?
    10. What have you always felt called toward, but feared to do? What new life wishes to come into being through you?
  • Why is now the time, if ever it is to happen, for you to anser the summons of the soul, to live the second, larger life?
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