James Hillman, a psychologist and Jungian analyst, was a brilliant man and something of an iconoclast. He died October, 27, 2011. I had never met Hillman, or attended any of his popular lectures or classes. But like many people who study Carl Jung’s theories and/or practice this branch of psychology and psychotherapy, I have read some of Hillman’s work, and have even been in awe with some of his ideas. So much so in fact, that my doctoral dissertation was loosely based on his idea of the “acorn theory” of psychological development discussed in his bestselling book, The Soul’s Code.
If you read much of his work, it is clear that Hillman liked to stand popular psychological concepts and ideas on their heads, so to speak. He was a contrarian. He asked difficult questions, challenged the status quo, and made people think. All of these things are good for both the science and art of psychotherapy which so often these days is more prone to do the opposite; ask easy questions, and give cook-book like answers and solutions to complex human and societal problems.
After Hillman’s death, I was drawn to articles and blogs about the great thinker and one of the leading figures behind the movement of “archetypal psychology.” There was a theme that carried across several of these articles about Hillman’s thinking on “hope,” and particularly its place in the psychotherapy process.
The three articles/blog posts that I will mention here were all written by individuals who appear to have attended one of his lectures toward the end of his life. Perhaps they even attended the same lecture. In any case, the articles all discussed Hillman’s notion of hope, which is a topic that he apparently lectured upon toward the end of his life. But he also wrote about hope many years ago. Of course, it is possible that he was wrestling with the notion of hope himself toward the end of his life while dealing with an illness, and it is these battles within himself that were projected outward toward his audiences.
Tracey Cleantis, writer of Freudian Sip, published an article on Hillman 02/22/2011. Its title, James Hillman: Follow Your Uncertainty. In this article, she said that after hearing Hillman speak at a conference that, “Hillman warns that hope is a cruel thing to give a patient, that depression is the appropriate response to the world we live in…”
Hillman on hope is again mentioned in an article written by Michael Hanson, in Marketminder, dated 11/08/2011, and titled, Remembering James Hillman. Hanson said, “The first time I lunched with him, I hesitated, pushing around salad on my plate, finally asking, ‘What do you think of the psychological value of hope, Mr. Hillman?’ He said, ‘I do not like hope. It is an illusion—a psychological fantasy. Hope creates an expectation, and I see little need of such a thing.’”
And in a third article, this time by Tayria Ward, Ph.D., written in Doctortayria’s Blog, in an article dated 04/06/2011, and titled, Hope, the last evil? She recalled a classroom lecture by Hillman in which he spoke of “the naiveté of hope,” in which hope was the last “evil” left in Pandora’s Box. Ward said, “His point as I understand it, was that hope is a reliance upon an unknown future that distracts us from the present, from dealing with what is here, right now.” Ward adds later in this article, “Part of me now wants, truly, to give up on hope, to confront present reality for what it suggests to me for better and for worse…” Later she says, “That feeling, I find, leads to despair…but I still believe in hope.”
This theme on Hillman and hope essentially seems to distill down to this: Hillman seemed to have something against hope and even described it as an “evil” that doesn’t belong in the psychotherapy process.
Hillman’s mostly dismissive stance on hope in the psychotherapeutic process is wrong. This is not a gray area–hope belongs in the therapy consulting room because the psyche puts it there. And since hope is so vitally important in this process, I knew that I must write a defense of hope grounded in the reality of the psyche and not in the pitfalls and tricks of the intellect.
I also re-examined some of Hillman’s books, and for the purposes of this article, I focused mostly on his book, Suicide and the Soul, since it discussed hope in more detail. In this book, Hillman (1976) said:
Where the analyst can put aside his medical reaction to offer hope through treatment, he can enter the despair with the patient. By yielding his own hope, he can begin to accept the patient’s experience that there is nothing to be done. So, he offers nothing but the experience itself. (p. 89)
And Hillman also stated:
And if hope is the fundamental emotional force of life, perhaps it is also…the opposite; the fundamental deceit, as the expectation and desire that takes us away from the moment. (p. 153)
Hillman (1976) related the story of Pandora’s Box. In the commonly held version of the myth, after all of the evils in the world exit the box, it is only hope that remains. It is implied that hope remains to combat the evils in the world. In Hillman’s version, hope itself is one of the evils (It must be noted that Hillman is not the first to propose this argument about hope and Pandora’s Box).
It would be inaccurate to say that there is not a grain of truth in some of Hillman’s writings about hope and particularly in his book Suicide and the Soul. In fact, like any observant Jungian, he presents the paradox of the opposites when he suggests that hope can be a force of life and also a fundamental deceit.
There is, however, a certain flavor of intellectual trickery in the way that Hillman treats hope. It is as if he forgets to bring affect into the equation. This does a great disservice to both beginning clinicians and clients in need of more clarity when the psychotherapeutic work with a suicidal client, for example, is at a crisis, or when life becomes too difficult for a client to handle.
Finally, Hillman (1976) states:
To hope for nothing, to expect nothing, to demand nothing. This is analytical despair. To entertain no false hopes, not even that hope for relief which brings one into analysis in the first place. This is an emptiness of soul and will. It is the condition present from that hour when, for the first time, the patient feels there is no hope at all for getting better, or even changing, whatsoever. An analysis lead up to this moment and by constellating this despair lets free the suicidal impulse. Upon this moment of truth the whole work depends, because this is the dying away from false life and wrong hopes out of which the complaint has come. As it is the moment of truth, it is also the moment of despair, because there is no hope. (p. 88-89)
Some have described Hillman as someone who enjoyed embracing the “trickster” archetype. I might put it another way. When it comes to his ideas about hope, Hillman was “tricked” by his intellect, a shadow side to brilliance. When a superior intellect gets carried away like a runaway train and without the earthy, feeling-toned grounding of the psyche, it can lose sight of the reality of the psyche and the morality that we find there.
It is clear that the psyche values hope and it does not do so at the expense of negating the “here and now.” In other words, hope and immediacy, as well as hope and the acceptance of necessary suffering, are not mutually exclusive. Psychotherapists can help clients when they are in states of extreme despair, without embracing Hillman’s notions on hope and his warnings of creating “false hopes,” which, according to Hillman, may lead the client away from embracing the psychotherapeutic “opportunity” contained within the crisis and despair.
Perhaps of all of the “isms” that Jung warned us about, intellectualism is the trickiest to catch, and defend against. The intellect is slippery and tricks us into believing that it is psyche. Intellectualism, of course, is when we place too much emphasis on the superiority of the intellect. This becomes problematic when we do so at the expense of feeling and affect. Here is what Jung (1969) said about this:
It is through the “affect” that the subject becomes involved and so comes to feel the whole weight of reality….In psychology one possesses nothing unless one has experienced it in reality. Hence a purely intellectual insight is not enough, because one knows only words and not the substance of the thing from inside. (p. 33)
Jung (1969) also said:
It would seem that one can pursue any science with the intellect alone except psychology, whose subject—the psyche—has more than the two aspects mediated by sense-perception and thinking. The function of value—feeling—is an integral part of our conscious orientation and ought not to be missing in a psychological judgment of any scope, otherwise the model we are trying to build of the real process will be incomplete. (p. 32)
In Bulkeley and Bulkley’s (2005) excellent book on pre-death dreams, they tell the story of Bill, an eighty something year-old retired merchant marine diagnosed with bone cancer. It is also a story about hope, even when death is at the door. Bill had been severely depressed before Bulkley, a hospice minister, spoke with him for the first time. After their talk, which included talk of spiritual matters, Bulkley visited him a few days later, and Bill’s attitude and presentation were completely changed. He discussed his days at the helm of his ship feeling alone in the vast sea, and he reported how he “felt connected with God.” Then he told Bulkley this dream from the week before:
I am sailing again at night in uncharted waters and the old sense of adventure comes back. I feel the tingle of excitement again, of pushing through the waves in the vast, dark, empty sea but knowing somehow I am right on course. (p. 3)
Bill also told Bulkley that he was no longer afraid to die, and that he felt actually “ready to go.” He died the following week. In addition, Bill’s wife told Bulkley how this dream of Bill’s also gave her the strength to let go.
Bulkley did not need to help Bill in the here and now at the expense of hope. Bill knew death was at his door. What Bulkley did need to do in this case, was to allow for whatever the psyche had in mind to help Bill deal with his present situation. And in this case, the psyche gave him a hopeful dream.
I had a client once who would likely never walk again, and was mostly bed-ridden and would probably remain so for the rest of her life due to a horrible accident. A big part of her daily routine consisted of a revolving door of health care professionals attending to her many medical and mental health needs. Of course a large part of my psychotherapeutic work with this client consisted in gently helping her to accept the abrupt end of her life as she knew it, and the immensely painful reality that she was living with now.
There was, however, no way to do this without also allowing for hope, which as hope tends to do when we hit the bottom: it comes unbidden and in this case it came in the form of love for and from her children and family. She fought this hope, entertained suicide, but in the end, it was hope perhaps more than anything else, which saved her. She was not saved by the herculean acceptance of her condition and any therapist’s ability and willingness to “sit with her” in her despair. The psychotherapist must be willing to enter into the despair with our client, but also hold the possibility of hope in one form or another even for the seemingly “hopeless” scenarios.
Life sometimes gives us more than we can handle. What do we do when life gives us more than we can handle? For the psychotherapist, the answer is not in withholding ideas of hope for our clients.
I discussed a dream on my website, under the link and page, Dreams and Adult Depression. In this discussion, I related the dream of a profoundly depressed 47 year-old man and it is worth repeating here because it is such a clear example of how the psyche can use dreams of hope during times of extreme suffering. For this man, the unconscious offered a path through his depression by giving him hope. This message of hope came unbidden and unsuggested. This depressed man dreamt:
I was with Bob and others on a stormy summer night. For some reason we were watching Bob throw rolled up newspapers into the back of a three-quarter ton pickup. The owner of the truck was a grocer. He was a neighborhood older man and a real likable sort. He took Bob up on a bet that he couldn’t make the toss as he moved the truck further and further away. Bob kept making the toss. This took place on the street in front of a church.
Finally, the grocer moved the truck several blocks away. There was a big funnel cloud hanging over the church and the wind was incredible. Nobody thought Bob could make this last toss. The odds were against him. We started to bet on it since it was a physically impossible distance to throw something. I bet the grocer $500.00 because I knew Bob had God on his side. It was obvious to me, yet nobody else seemed to notice. I seldom bet, but this was a given.
Finally, Bob threw the paper and the paper went past the pickup truck. Then, the paper made a few swoops as the wind tossed it about and the paper finally landed in the truck. I knew the toss would be successful. The grocer was amazed and went in to get the money.
This dream gave the dreamer much needed hope during a dark depression. During the psychotherapy process he mentioned that when he felt particularly hopeless, with suicidal ideation at times, he would remember the hopeful message in the dream which to him was “God can accomplish amazing things in spite of the odds.” His depression was so deep that he thought he would never get better, and his dream helped him to find hope again.
The psyche, this dream, the story and its imagery all gave hope. The dream did not come from the psychotherapist’s attempt to give a suffering client hope like a cheerleader would while cheering the team on. The dream came from the unconscious and it had a clear message to the dreamer, and it was purposive—it gave hope and significantly helped to pull this profoundly depressed man into his future.
The dichotomy of hope makes itself known in almost all men and women doing lots of “time,” while serving long sentences in prison. I am very familiar with this issue since I’ve been working in prisons in one capacity or another as a psychologist for almost fourteen years.
In the classic movie The Shawshank Redemption, there is a fitting dialogue between two prisoners–one who believes in hope and the other who is not so sure. The dialogue goes like this:
Andy: I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company…[points to his head.] It was in here. [gestures to his heart] And in here. That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?
Red: Well… I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it, though. Didn’t make too much sense in here.
Andy: No, here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.
Andy: That there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s… there’s something inside that they can’t get to; that they can’t touch. It’s yours.
Red: What are you talking about?
Red: Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You’d better get used to that idea.
Andy: Like Brooks did? [Brooks was another inmate who had become “institutionalized” and who eventually committed suicide.]
And finally, Andy, from outside of prison, says in a letter to Red, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
This dialogue rings true for inmates, and others who find themselves in places with little hope. For the men inside of prison who remain hopeful (and this happens, even if they have life sentences with almost no chance of ever getting out) are able to survive and carry on–even in meaningful ways. And a few serving life sentences even get released against all odds and predictions (whether or not one agrees with this, is a different matter).
Those men who lose hope completely are in for a terrible time. Sometimes they turn to drugs like heroin, or they embrace a path of self-destruction and/or violence that will eventually lead them to “the hole” or a maximum security prison with even more rules and loss of freedom. In other words, one’s dance with and attitude toward hope can either help one to find life and meaning again, or it can lead to further despair and a feeling as if one is locked in a metaphoric prison without a gate or key.
Just the other day and while I was driving and thinking about what I would have to say about hope and Hillman, I noticed a car in front of me with a bumper sticker. The sticker simply said this: “Got life. Got hope?” Perhaps this small synchronicity about hope says it all. The psyche works this way. It’s as if it laughs at our pitfalls of intellectualism and the intellect’s tendency to twist self-evident truths that the psyche can so eloquently put to us in other ways.
The psyche doesn’t need to twist things. It speaks to us in symbols, in irrational methods, and in ways that are in accord with our deep affects and emotions. Lessons about suffering, its great mysteries and solutions are almost never solved by the intellect alone and without the value of feeling. Life, hope—the two go hand-in hand and if we allow it to, the psyche’s prospective function carries us on.
Bulkeley, K., and Patricia Bulkley. (2005). Dreaming Beyond Death: A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hillman, J. (1976). Suicide and the Soul. Zurich, Switzerland: Spring Publications.
Jung, C.G. (1969). Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (Second Ed.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Good article, but I’m not sure you’re right about Hillman. Woody Allen once said, “Marriage is the death of hope.” For years I stood statement on its head, believing that ‘hope is the death of marriage’. I understand the inversion to mean that you can’t ‘hope’ things into existence when it comes to human interactions. One needs to face the facts of who they are, and get on with the process of being more of that. Hillman seems to hew close to this meaning. When he says we have to deal ‘without hope’, he means that no amount shifting the burden, fantasizing, or otherwise avoiding reality will bring us closer to who we really are. I don’t have a problem with that, nor do I think it necessarily excludes the common notion of ‘hope’ as a motivator for change.
Thanks for taking the time to post a comment and for adding to the discussion. Like I mentioned in the article, it’s not that Hillman is completely inaccurate in his statements on hope. But when it comes to hope and its place in psychotherapy, I believe that he puts too much emphasis on making his case from the intellect at the expense of emotion and affect. In other words, his writings on hope are without warmth. Thanks for your input into this especially important topic.