Challenged to find meaning in his own final years, the esteemed Jungian psychologist James Hillman discovers, creates, or imagines the reader will eventually choose one of these verbs a rational, confident acceptance of the degeneration of old age.
But The Force Of Character, as Hillman stresses almost sternly, is not about facing or understanding death. This is no guidebook to the afterlife, no sweet vision of eternity. Nor does he present cheery prescriptions for combating the aging process. He believes that it is undignified, if not downright bonkers, to invest valuable psychological resources in vainly trying to stop the body's inevitable, potentially illuminating decline. Rather than imagine 90-year-olds leaping in aerobics classes, Hillman teaches them to learn from supposed infirmities. Does short-term memory fade like the dew? Then use long-term memory to perform the important psychological work of long-term life review. When the physical senses fail and Chateaubriand tastes like cardboard, let the mind's eyes take over, sharpening perceptions of life's subtler beauties. Can't sleep? Let the long hours of the night become a rich resource for deepening wisdom.
Hillman's theme may at first seem radically contrarian: Old age uses infirmities to present a panoply of opportunities for refining character. Diminished physical faculties coupled with the active intelligence of the soul allow us to recognize and fully become a unique self.
Drawing upon a wealth of references to classical mythology, the Bible, poetry, philosophy, and rock lyrics, The Force Of Character maintains that our century foolishly disdains the historic importance of character, which Hillman distinguishes from morality or genetic inheritance.
He believes that we deny the last years, so valuable for reviewing life and making amends, for cosmological speculation and the confabulation of memories into stories, for sensory enjoyment of the world's images, and for connections with apparitions and ancestors. That quote is Hillman's prescription for imaginative, consequential aging. To the reader frantically seeking guidelines for preserving youth or promises of bliss in the hereafter, such rewards may seem too abstract and conjectural.
Of course, that is Hillman's point. To concentrate on character is to find sense and purpose in the changes that define the decades past age 60 or so. In that transcendent sense, as he writes, Character is a therapeutic idea and determines the fragile image we finally leave to the world.
Charles Flowers recently received a Washington Irving Award for his book, A Science Odyssey.