Book review – The force of character and the lasting life – James Hillman

I co-presented a workshop on ageing with my friend Sarena Wolfaard recently. Synchronistically, preparing for it, i gave lift to a lady who ran a website on old age. She recommended this book.

What i love about Hillman is the mix of Jungian values, and his Greek mythic knowledge and epistemological curiosity.

He points out that how we treat old people, leaving them in at times neglected old age homes, is symptomatic of a lack of respect for what the purpose of old age is for. We tend to see old age as the decrepit bit before death. He though sees it as a time where character can emerge.

To explain ageing we usually turn to biology, genetics, and geriatric physiology, but to understand ageing we need something more, the idea of character. xiv

Character – as the title of the book is named after is key here, allowing the depths of who we are to shine forth in a way that our society doesn’t honour, but which is our unique way of living. in later years feelings of altruism and kindness to strangers play a larger role.. character begins to govern life’s decisions ever more pertinently, and permanently. Values come under more scrutiny, and qualities such as decency and gratitude become more previous than accuracy and efficiency.55

Jung’s use of teleology and individuation run through the book. In particular being our individual self inherent in individuation, is important.

… we are unique because each of us has, or is a specific character that stays the same. 7 Old age allows us to be our true self The older soul, aged in its own peculiarity…… favours the odd. 35. So by being peculiar, odd, quirky we can allow our true nature to emerge. to be fully old, authentic in our being and available in our presence with its gravitas, and eccentricity, indirectly affects the public good and thereby their good. This makes oldness a full-time job from which we may not retire. 47

Old age is not just an age issue and also an attitude. the so-called psychology of old age can descend long before old age. Any day we may take to our beds and become querulous with friends, anxious about the future, and oppressed by the death we feel hovering. 18 When we retire from life, then we become old.

He doesn’t pull his punches in the book, talking about amongst many things; gravity’s sag, waking at night, muddled agitation, drying up, memory, heightened irritability, erotics. In all of them he points out deeper aspects, gravity’s sag for instance as a way of getting down. Peeing at night, a way to access the almost shamanic consciousness that is less work at day, sleep at night regulated. I didn’t agree with all he wrote, but i liked the questions, he asked. He flips the conventional obsession with youth and body on its head and points the idea of wisdom and character. The bodily fact that i cannot pick up as i once could the 50lb feed bag, heave the suitcase onto the overhead rack, or lift the planter onto my porch railing signifies a concrete measurable decline in my capacity. ..
Suppose that rather than seeking bodily explanation, i read these changes in my lifting capacity more reflectively as bodily expression. ‘Am i picking up more than i should be?what am i carrying around – big responsibilities, leaden feelings, over-stuffed baggage?’… forced to examine what’s already on my back, or discover another kind of capacity to carry 58

Hillman then flips age, physiology, afflictions – Jung – ‘the gods have become diseases’  and points out the deeper soul movements in our lives. In Indian culture the last stage of life is for renouncing the world householder life and being with god. This still happens to this day with older people becoming sadhus, monks and nuns and simply moving to an ashram. The wisdom of the ages courses through at times in the book. Perhaps one of those gems to end on is how he paraphrases Yeats “I pray .. that i may seem, though i die old./ a foolish passionate man.”

This book, like a lot of Jung’s offerings, speaks to the deeper soul life that we have as our potential. In this case old age and the deeper purpose and potentialities of that time of our life. I could understand much of my own mother in a deeper way.

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