The Soul’s Code


James Hillman is a psychologist, scholar, international lecturer, and the author of more than twenty books including The Soul’s Code (N.Y., Random House, 1996).  He is trained as a Jungian analyst and has taught at Yale, Syracuse, and the University of Chicago and the University of Dallas.


I tell you this because it is important to understand the source of a new idea.  Some new ideas are created by feeble minds and are not worthy of your time.  What Hillman says is very significant should not be dismissed lightly just because it is at variance with what others have taught you over the years.


With that admonition, I now will summarize Hillman’s book and all of the following quotes are from that book.  Hopefully my summary will encourage you to read the entire book.  Hopefully you will have an open mind to these ideas as they could help you better understand yourself and others.


Chapter One starts out: “There is more in a human life than our theories of it allow.  Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path.  You may remember this ‘something’ as a signal moment in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation: This is what I must do; this is what I’ve got to have.  This is who I am. 


“This book is about that call. 


“If not this vivid or sure, the call may have been more like gentle pushings in the stream in which you drifted unknowingly to a particular spot on the bank.  Looking back, you sense that fate had a hand in it.


“This book is about that sense of fate.


“These kinds of annunciations and recollections determine biography as strongly as memories of abusive horror; but these more enigmatic moments tend to be shelved.  Our theories favor traumas setting us the task of working them through.  Despite early injury and all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we bear from the start the image of a definite individual character with some enduring traits.


“This book is about that power of character.


“Because the ’traumatic’ view of early years so controls psychological theory of personality and its development, the focus of our rememberings and the language of our personal storytelling have already been infiltrated by the toxins of these theories.  Our lives may be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods.  We are, this book shall maintain, less damaged by the traumas of childhood than by the traumatic way we remember childhood as a time of unnecessary and externally caused calamities that wrongly shaped us.


“So this book wants to repair some of that damage by showing what else was there, is there, in your nature.  It wants to resurrect the unaccountable twists that turned your boat around in the eddies and shallows of meaninglessness, bringing you back to feelings of destiny. For that is what is lost in so many lives, and what must be recovered; a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive….there is a reason my unique person is here and that there are things I must attend to beyond the daily round and that give the daily round its reason” (pp. 3-4).


Hillman packs a lot into that opening statement so you may want to go back over it a couple of times to fully appreciate what he is saying.  He is urging you to think about yourself in a whole different manner than you have been used to if you have bought into the standard psychological theories.  Hillman is saying that there is within you some force, some innate image that you desperately need to understand if you are going to fulfill your destiny.  “To uncover the innate image we must set aside the psychological frames that are usually used, and mostly used up.  They do not reveal enough.  They trim a life to fit the frame” (p. 5).  I especially like that last line: “They trim the life to fit the frame.”  In other words, psychologists have developed theories and then, if need be, cut off your ear to make the picture of you fit into the theories or frames that they have available.  Hillman wants you to see that other frames exist, larger ones, ones that will nourish your development rather than stunt it or cut some of it off.


Why is this so important?  Hillman contends that: “We dull our lives by the way we conceive them” (p. 5).  How do we conceive them?  We tend to impose upon the diversity that is humanity theoretical baggage that says you can understand a human being by understanding the genetics, the nature, and the life events, the nurture, of that person’s life.  Hillman’s book helps you see that another force is at work in your life and that this force is vital to your unfolding as a human being.


Abiding within you, like it or not, is an image of who you need to be.  This image precedes both nature and nurture.  “Your person is not a process or a development.  You are that essential image that develops, if it does.  As Picasso said, ‘I don’t develop; I am’” (p. 7).


Each person enters the world called” (p. 7).


If that were not enough, Hillman shakes-up the way we see life by contending that this calling was powerfully influential before your birth!  We elected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul” (p. 8).


Hillman urges us to recognize that image and nurture it.  He wants each of us to: “(a) Recognize the call as a prime fact of human existence; (b) align life with it; (c) find the common sense to realize that accidents, including the heartache and the natural shocks the flesh is heir to, belong to the pattern of the image, are necessary to it, and help fulfill it” (p. 8).


He uses a variety of words to talk about this “image” and most often call it a “daimon”, a force to be reckoned with, a fire within you that is calling you to move and create your life in a certain predetermined direction.  He sees this as a gift that we all have.  “This means that each child is a gifted child, filled with data of all sorts, gifts peculiar to that child which show themselves in peculiar ways, often maladaptive and causing pain.  So this book is about children, offering a way to regard them differently, to enter their imaginations, and to discover in their pathologies what their daimon might be indicating and what their destiny might want” (p 14).


To help illustrate what he is talking about, Hillman goes through a long list of famous people that were strongly and clearly influenced by the image they were born with as to what they should become.  The list includes all types of famous people from the great bullfighter Manolete to world leaders and artists.  One such biography that he uses to help us understand this force within us is the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin.  When but a child of three he asked his parents for a violin for his fourth birthday.  As Menuhin related when he was an adult: “I did know, instinctively, that to play was to be” (p. 17).  Another example he uses is Golda Meir, who led Israel during the 1973 war.  When she was only in the 4th grade in the Milwaukee public schools “she organized a protest group against the required purchase of schoolbooks, which were too expensive for the poorer children, who were thus denied equal opportunity to learn.  This child of eleven (!) rented a hall to stage a meeting, raised funds, gathered her group of girls, prepped her little sister to declaim a socialist poem in Yiddish, and then herself addressed the assembly.  Was she not already a Labor party prime minister?  Golda Meir’s mother had pressed her to write out her speech first, ‘but it made more sense to me just to say what I wanted to say, “speeches from my head’” (p20).


Hillman’s list of the famous goes on and on as he shows that their greatness can be linked to the images from their heads---callings that they came into the world with at birth.  On this list are Eleanor Roosevelt---America’s greatest First Lady of all time, Rommel---Germany’s greatest military leader, Robert Peary---who discovered the North Pole, Gandhi---not only India’s leader but the visionary of all who seek non-violence and change, and Jackson Pollock---who invented the drip calligraphy of abstract expressionist action painting and who once said: “When I am painting, I am not aware of what I am doing.”


“According to the study of creativity by Harvard professor of psychiatry Albert Rothenberg…he rules out intelligence, temperament, personality type, introversion, inheritance, early environment, inspiration, obsession, mental disorder: All these may or may not be present, may contribute, may be strongly dominant, but only motivation is ‘absolutely, across the board, present in all’” (p. 27).  Hillman contends that that motivation that is the only force present in all creative individuals is the image, the calling that we have within from birth.


Hillman contends that he is “NOT engaged in a worship of the rich and famous or in a study of creativity and genius” (p. 29).  He believes that we all have a calling and that it is more easily documented in the extraordinary people that he uses as examples.  However, he will use some ordinary people as well to illustrate his points.


Keep in mind that to be famous is not in any way related to being happy!  He uses Judy Garland as an example of a person with great talent related to the calling she was born with who was unable to use that talent in a way that led to happiness.  How called was Judy?  “Garland’s sister Virginia reports that ‘even in her two-year-old head, she already knew exactly what she wanted.’  Garland believed her calling ‘was inherited.  Nobody ever taught me what to do on stage…I just did “what came naturally.”’”(p. 49).  Her life was very messy and tragic.  Part of Judy Garland’s problem was that she didn’t understand her calling.  Her songs struck at the heart of her audience.  They felt her loneliness and pain.  But, the two (loneliness & pain) are not inseparable partners.  This is a very important point.  “These ways of thinking about loneliness---social, therapeutic, moral, existential---make two assumptions that I cannot accept.  First, each says that loneliness equates with literal aloneness and consequently is remediable by some sort of human action, such as repenting for sins, therapeutic relating, building the project of your life with your own heroic hands.  Second, each assumes that loneliness is fundamentally unpleasant.  But if there is an archetypal sense of loneliness accompanying us from the beginning, then to be alive is also to feel lonely.  Loneliness comes and goes apart from the measures we take.  It does not depend on being literally alone, for pangs of loneliness can strike in the midst of friends, in bed with a lover, at the microphone before a cheering crowd.  When feelings of loneliness are seen as archetypal, they become necessary; they are no longer harbingers of sin, of dread, or of wrong. …Nor is loneliness mainly unpleasant…Desperation grows worse when we seek ways out of despair. These conditions of nostalgia, sadness, silence, and a yearning imagination are the stuff of Judy Garland’s songs, her voice and phrasing, her body language, her face and eyes.  No wonder her performances reached the common heart as no others did” (pp. 55-6).


Hillman contends that what is necessary is for a person to not only grow up nurturing and understanding and accepting their calling, they must also “grow down” in order to develop a balanced existence and avoid the pain that Garland experienced.


Growing Down


For his example of a great talent that was able to grow down, he examines the life of Josephine Baker.  Rising out of great poverty to great success, Baker was born at the St Louis Social Evil Hospital in 1906…what a “wonderful” name for a hospital!?  Like Judy (Garland’s real name was Frances Gumm), Josephine started out in life with the name of Freda J. McDonald and was nicknamed Tumpy as a child.  She was dancing even as a child “in a basement where she set up a little stage and box benches.  She slapped the other kids around so they would sit still and pay attention while she performed” (p. 58). 


“Josephine Baker’s star life shows many similarities to that of Judy Garland: the huge public acclaim and the public eclipse; the mesmerizing performances; the need to ‘be in love’; the struggle with men as lovers, partners, and exploiters (one young man shot himself right in front of her and died at her feet); money running through her fingers; the show-business whirl and its glamorizing effect on personal habits and health; the ascent from nowhere; the complete lack of a normal education; obsessions with physical inferiorities (Garland worried over her weight and build, Baker over her hair); and sex” (p. 59-60).


But what is more important than the similarities are the differences between these two great talents.  During World War II Baker risked her life helping the underground against the Nazi by smuggling information for them.  “During the cold winter after the liberation of Paris she scavenged hundreds of pounds of meant, bags of vegetables, and coal to help the poor.  She was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre for her contributions and was congratulated by de Gaulle (France’s President).  She was an early participant in the civil rights movement; she insisted blacks be hired as stagehands; she joined the 1963 March on Washington; she visited black inmates in a New Jersey prison…She also visited Castro’s Cuba; the FBI’s file on her ran to a thousand pages.  Baker’s last step down was supporting eleven adopted children from many nations and of many colors, fighting to keep them together and to see they were fed, housed, and schooled.  Broke, homeless, aging, she gave her last show to wild acclaim, in Paris a few days before she died, April 12, 1975, at the Salpetriere hospital” which was originally “built for outcast women, prostitutes, syphilitics, indigents, criminals” (p. 60—61).


Yeah!  What a fabulous person!  Not just a talent, much much more.  A person who grew down into the earth and became real, more than just an image on a stage.  Garland never was able to do that and her end was tragic whereas Baker’s end was glorious right to the final days.


“First, your body: Growing down means going with the sag of gravity that accompanies aging.  Second, admitting yourself to be one among your people and a member of the family tree, including its twisted and rotten branches .  Third, living in a place that suits your soul and that ties you down with duties and customs.  Last, giving back what circumstances gave you by means of gestures that declare your full attachment to this world” (p. 62).


Remember now, Hillman is clearly stating that everyone has a calling and that everyone has to grow down.  So what are some of the reasons people use for their failure to do so?  One of the most common excuses is that your parents were at fault for your not getting the nurturing necessary. 


The Parental Fallacy


“If any fantasy holds our contemporary civilization in an unyielding grip, it is that we are our parents’ children and that the primary instrument of our fate is the behavior of your mother and father.  As their chromosomes are ours, so are their mess-ups and attitudes” (p. 63).



“Yet all along a little elf whispers another tale: ‘You are different; you’re not like anyone in the family; you don’t really belong’.  There is an unbeliever in the heart.  It calls the family a fantasy, a fallacy” (p. 64).


To illustrate this point, Hillman tells a story of twins that were separated at birth and raised by different parents.  Each grew up to be a neat freak.  When asked why they were this way, one said that it was obviously a result of having been raised by a mother who was a neat freak.  The other twin said that he also blames it on his mother---only she was a slob.  Now some will give a variety of explanations of how children react to parents, but the point Hillman is making is that these identical twins had identical callings and somehow the calling made them become neat freaks.  "The parental fallacy does not help anyone grow down.  It pulls us away from the (calling) and back to Mom and Dad, who may already be dead and gone though we remain stuck with their effects.  I am then a mere effect myself, a result of their causes.  For all our heroic individualism America still clings to a mother-based developmental psychology that states we are fundamentally results of parenting and, as such, fundamentally victims of what happened in the past and left indelible stains” (p. 77).


Hillman argues that the parent’s job is to be nurturing of the child and welcoming to its call---but, and this is a very big and important but, BUT the parent must also be welcoming to their own calling.  Only when the parent is alive to their drive, their call, their reason for being, will they then be comparably open to the needs of their children.  So the last thing parents should do is let their child’s needs run the lives of the parents.


The Mentor


Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Charles Darwin, Elia Kazan….and the list could go on forever…all were able to realize their calling thanks to a mentor.  Although the mentor can be a parent, it most often is not.  Therefore, we all should recognize the responsibility we have to be mentors to the children of others with faith that our own children will find mentors outside the home.


Mentoring begins when your imagination can fall in love with the fantasy of another” (p. 121).  However, as this is rare, mentoring can also be received from a book, from a person who is famous and you use as a role model, from a variety of sources. 




First, keep what Hillman is saying in its full context.  Nature and nurture are still important variables that powerfully influence who we are.  Don’t dismiss them.  However, you are now being urged to recognize that another important dimension exists in each and every one of us.


You are being called!  Everyone is being called!  So, the key question is, Are you listening?  Are you listening to the inner voice that has been with you forever?  Are you open to this voice in you AND are you also open to it in others?

So let us be specific.  How do I do this?  I have a little nephew here in the Philippines that is over at my house just about every day and often sleeps over.  He is thoroughly obnoxious, overly dramatic, a showoff, egotistically self-centered, and hyperactive.  If he were in the United States he would probably be on Ritalin by now and we would control all the behaviors that we find unpleasant.


However, if we step back and look at Jake as Hillman would have us do, with imagination, with a desire to nurture and even fall in love with his fantasies, then he magically changes.  He is now simply a child in love with his calling and our task is to help him achieve those inner goals with which he came into the world.  Now please note that this does not mean I have to tolerate every little thing he does.  He is not allowed to simply be a wild child without any restraints.  He still has to wash his hands before dinner and behave in a reasonable manner toward those around him.  However, at the same time we must accept and love who he is struggling to become.  In that process we can hopefully help him become more aware of what his calling is and help him learn to both embrace that calling and see the importance of growing down.


So let us be specific about yourself.  At this point in your life you may have a hard time seeing what your calling is.  But, don’t just ignore or avoid the task.  Go back, way back.  Look at what you were like as a child.  Look for patterns.  Look intuitively into your soul and try to begin to understand your calling.