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Do We Really Solve our Problems? by James Hollis, PhD

Monday, October 15, 2018 5:16 PM | Jung Society of Washington

It is the natural desire and tendency of conscious life to solve problems and then move on.   This proclivity does indeed lead to the resolution of many if not most of life’s dilemmas.   But not the ones that matter most.

Jung himself shared our desire to quick and happy resolution to the conflicts and stuck places.   He describes, “I had always worked with the temperamental conviction that at bottom there are no insoluble problems, and experience justified me in so far as I have often seen patients simply outgrow a problem that had destroyed others.   This ‘outgrowing,’ as I formerly called it, proves on further investigation to be a new level of consciousness.   Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency.  It is not solved logically in its own terms, but faded out when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.”  (CW 13, Alchemical Studies, par. 17)

How often the old adage, “sleep on it” does bring a measure of relief the next day when we have been able to step back out of the emotional morass and reframe it in some way.   Our unconscious has also worked on it to provide a new perspective.   Notable artistic and scientific discoveries have risen out of this outer/inner world dialectic.

Still, many of life’s issues are not solvable.  For example, sometimes quanta of trauma remain in our system and send up bubbles to trouble our days, just as a sunken ocean liner releases its flotsam for decades.  (The USS Arizona is still leaking oil at Pearl Harbor after seventy-seven years).   Sometimes betrayals, profound losses, roads not taken continue to haunt a person and cloud the present.    We will never “solve” these experiences for they are always part of our psychoactive history.   But consciously we can attend to the business of living in the present.   Asking the question: “what does this old, persisting problem make me do, or keep me from doing,” obliges us to take responsibility for what spills into the world through us.

Some years ago, in a book called Swamplands of the Soul, I suggested that our periodic visitations to dismal places: depression, loss, betrayal, grief, and so on were part of the human condition from which none of us is exempt.   But to move beyond a posture of outrage at life’s “betrayal,” we are called to ask another question: “to what present task is this swampland calling me”?   Asking this question moves us from a posture of “victimage” to engagement with the unfolding of our destiny.   Without this move, fate triumphs over destiny.

Elsewhere, Jung writes eloquently about those dilemmas to which there is no obvious resolution, or no cost-free resolution.   Then he suggests we hold the tension of opposites which are pulling us apart, until the “third” appears.   The “third” means, neither this nor that, yes or no, but what is the developmental task this dilemma is bringing me.   Where am I being asked to grow larger than, to reframe, to reposition this contretemps?   In asking this question, once again, we are moved from a paralysis, a stuckness, a loss of agency to a summons to accountability.    Being accountable is what it means to be a grown up.

Jung’s summarizes, “the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble.  They must be so, for they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system.   They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”  (Ibid. par. 18) Meanwhile, the task of living goes onward, with or without our participation.

James Hollis, Ph.D. is a Zurich-trained Jungian analyst in practice in Washington, D. C. where he is also Executive Director of the Jung Society of Washington. He is also author of fifteen books translated into nineteen languages. 


  • Thursday, September 20, 2018 9:36 PM | Oxana Holtmann
    "Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency" this sounds very true. Then everything that's required from an observer/therapist/coach during the "outgrowth" time is patience and loving undivided attention. Thank you, Jim.
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    • Sunday, September 23, 2018 12:48 PM | Karen Branan
      "The USS Arizona is still leaking oil at Pearl Harbor after seventy-seven years."

      This 77-year-old loves this! And knows exactly how the poor ship feels.
      Link  •  Reply


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