An Unexamined Life? Wicked and Through The Dark Wood by James Hollis

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I went to see “Wicked” — the Broadway musical about the Witches of Oz.  It was AMAZING!  Seriously, I kept repeating to my friend, “worth every penny, worth every penny …”


It was so good, that I bought myself the soundtrack, so that I could obsessively listen to it, as I do.  While in my car, in one of those obsessive listening periods, these lyrics from “Dancing Through Life” jumped out at me:

“…But I say: why invite stress in?
Stop studying strife
And learn to live “the unexamined life”…

(From “Dancing Through Life,” WICKED)

The song is performed by a shallow character who is endorsing skipping school and eschewing responsibilities, which is clearly not my plan these days, but it did get me thinking about whether or not my constant examination of myself and my life IS “inviting stress in,” or actually helping me manage stress?

Truthfully, I think it is a pretty easy answer:  examining myself and my life helps me deal with the stresses of everyday life, because I have awareness now of my strengths and my weaknesses, and, as a result, know when to reach out and ask for help, when to take a “mental health day,” or when to just keep pressing on, etc. (That all being said, I do think there is a fine line that needs to be watched to avoid going from healthy self-examination to destructive self obsession / self-pity.  Thankfully today, I have people in my life, who will tell me when I’m crossing into “self-pity city.”)

If you agree with me that self-examination is a good thing, than James Hollis’ audiobook, “Through the Dark Wood,” is worth a listen.


In it, Hollis explains that the central purpose of the second half of life should be the questioning of ourselves and our beliefs. Our beliefs about ourselves and the world form the “shadow governments” that run us – they dictate our choices and behavior.  Shouldn’t we be aware of what is running our lives and controlling our decisions? Hollis wants us to go THROUGH the dark wood of our shadow governments, because that is the way home.  And our homecoming is found in the places we did not expect to visit – those are the places where we grow and develop. 


Hollis tells us that if we want a larger life, we have to ask the larger questions.  Questions such as, (1) What are our core ideas? (2) Where do we operate from a place of abandonment?  Where do we fear being overwhelmed?  (3) What is true for us in any given situation? (4) What is our personal authority? (5) How did we lose our personal authority? (6) Do we have the courage to live our personal authority in the world?


Those are some deep questions.

But, Hollis says, that what we do not know about ourselves (our “shadow selves”) will in fact hurt us.  The saying, “what you don’t know, can’t hurt you,” is a LIE according to Hollis.  The beliefs we have about ourselves and the world run our lives – whether we are aware of them or not.  Our shadow selves consist of everything we do not know or understand about ourselves.  And, we will project those shadow selves into the world without knowing why we are doing it.  We will play out our unknown “childhood wounds” in all of our relationships as adults.  We will transfer our childhood hurts onto our future partners and loved ones.  Without knowing our shadow selves, we lose power over the conduct of our lives.


I can tell you that this has been the case for me, for sure.  I have lived the majority of my life (the first half, and then some), completely unaware of my shadow governments.  I have operated without any clue about the forces from the past that were guiding my choices and my behaviors.  I have behaved in ways in relationships with others, that I could never understand, until after asking myself the questions from Hollis’ book.  I am now beginning to see how my childhood beliefs and wounds were reenacted in my adult relationships, without me ever being aware that it was happening.

In addition, one of the biggest effects of my 29 years of self numbing and “checking out of life,” was a total and complete disconnection from self. When I finally put down all the self-destructive “toys” of my past, I was left with an empty shell, and a lot of questions.  Who am I?  What do I like?  What do I do for fun?  What is fun?  And so many more.  I literally could not tell you, 2 1/2 years ago, what I liked and did not like.  Today, it is almost hard for me to imagine that I lived such an unconscious life.  There was absolutely no self-examination back then.  If you asked me during my “using” days what I did for fun, the answer would be “I party.”  That was it.  The end.  I partied.  I was a party girl.  That was my entire identity.  Yes, I had a career, and a home, and people in my life, but I was so cut off from all of it and all of them on an emotional and spiritual basis, that once the fog cleared, I had no idea why they were even in my life or how they ended up there.

It is not like that today.  Today, I am walking in the dark wood.  Today, I acknowledge that the journey through the dark wood is my home.  Today, I have answered the tough questions, and continue to answer them on a daily basis. Today, I know who I am.  I am a writer (see post here).  Today, I know what I like to do for fun (hiking, writing, reading, CrossFit, cooking, blogging, listening to music, drinking coffee with friends), and I am beginning to know, and continuing to develop, what I want in a future partner and a future self.

Do you?  I challenge you to join me in the journey through the dark wood.





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