In my previous posts, I wrote about the gravity of recurring negative thoughts. For Freud, the purpose of therapy is to bring about the cause of these recurrences, usually stemming from a crucial and often traumatic event in childhood, to the fore. Since I’ve been reading Carl Jung, who is probably one of my favorite authors, it’s intriguing to observe where he and Freud diverge. He writes in Modern Man in Search of a Soul that these recurrences of negative thinking, which he terms “neuroses” may be traced to something else. They may actually serve a useful purpose. Thus, the question we must ask is not “Why” or “What are the origins” of the neuroses as they are manifested in dreams, but rather, “What function does it serve” (6)? It may be that we can trace the neuroses to the future, a foreboding of something about to transpire or anticipation of a glorious future. Jung goes on to stress the importance of paying attention to our neuroses, especially as they evidence themselves in our dreams, for we spend almost half our lives in more or less unconscious states (11).
The primary purpose of psychoanalysis, then, as it differs from meditation or contemplation, is to look for what has been repressed or forgotten (35). Only through the act of confession, which prompts the release of suppressed emotions, can one become truly liberated from mental torments. Yet there are marked contrasts in how people cope with psychotherapy. The first marker, which Jung calls indicum is age. Apparently, younger people tend to be easier to handle, simply because the young neurotic is usually faced with the hesitation to confront the world, which is relatively more conducive to resolving than the older neurotic, who still clings to the dying past and youthful years (58).
Other indices the psychic consitution consists of include introversion/extroversion, spiritualism/materialism, reflective/non-reflective, and the remainder of the classic Carl Jung personality types (INFP, INTJ, etc.) He concludes that although these systems of comparison are too abstract to encompass everything about a person and certainly possess limitations, they are nonetheless indispensable because they create order in a new field (psychology) that at the time this book was written, was struggling with chaos. These were fascinating chapters, predictable, but no less intriguing; however, where Jung really shines with brilliance is in the subsequent chapter “The Stages of Life” (95).
What are the psychic journeys that correspond with various stages of life? Statistics show a rise in mental depression among men at around forty years of age. In women, these neurotic tendencies occur earlier, between thirty-five and forty. These tendencies occur as a steady and slow change in a person’s character. Certain beliefs in a person that was experienced in childhood may harden and become cemented around the age of fifty, even to the point of “fanaticism” (105). Jung suggests that the hardening of these beliefs may be a result of trying to overcompensate for feelings of insecurity that these beliefs are somehow threatened.
Jung writes that all our neuroticisms of childhood are further prolonged due to the appearance of the person’s parents. I can vouch for this, especially in Asian families, when it seems even a thirty year old’s inner child emerges when placed in family situations, mine included. It is for this very reason that one’s parents’ death has the effect of speeding up one’s mental life. In middle life, one is constantly looking behind him and this seems to instigate more neurotic tendencies. Jung compares the complexity of changes in the psyche to the rising and setting of the sun. The morning, when the sun shines brightly upon the world, in all its gloriousness, is akin to childhood and youth. When the descent begins, one starts aging, and this signifies the reversal of all that one believed to be true. “The sun falls into contradiction with itself. It is as though it should draw in its rays, instead of emitting them” (107). Interestingly enough, it seems at this stage of life, men and women’s corresponding masculine and feminine components begin to reverse. So men start to recognize their tenderness while women, their mental acuity. (Now, here I acknowledge that Jung was operating in a different time period and as Freud was his predecessor, may have bore some sexist assumptions about sex and gender roles and characteristics).
But why is aging so difficult for people, Jung persists? We know the purpose of youth. But descending into the afternoon carries with it much more confusion. Well, part of it, he concedes is the plain Western disregard for old people. In certain tribes and cultures, old people are revered and cherished. By contrast, in the US they must compete with the young. They gradually become obsolete in society.
Then Jung hits upon a truth that we can analyze regarding our search for bliss. He seems to suggest that the approach of old age is more depressing for those who had not lived their lives to the fullest when they were young. He asserts “if these people had filled up the beaker of life earlier and emptied it to the lees, they would feel quite differently about everything now; had they kept nothing back, all that wanted to catch fire would have been consumed, and the quiet of old age would be very welcome to them” (110). Jung’s secret gem is not entirely novel. How many times have we heard the elderly repeat, “Embrace your youth for it will go as quickly as a candle inflamed.” Now, this is quite an interesting insight, for it is hard to discern whether the person who lives joyfully in his youth will also live joyfully in old age, simply because it is in his disposition and aim to do so. Perhaps this person was joyful to begin with. Or it could very well be that if we have filled our cup of youth to it fullest until it brims with a variety of experiences, we would carry less regret in old age and therefore live happier lives.
Those who were unsatisfied with their youths will be even more distressed in old age, clinging to a youth that never was and inevitably wanes. Very few, Jung writes, are artists in life. Being an artist in life is living it to the fullest. Why shouldn’t all of us try to be engaged in the art of life and consequently succeed in “draining the whole cup with grace?” For Jung, part of being an artist in life is delving into the human psyche and acquiring wisdom. Wisdom is a return to the symbols that were already embedded in our psyche since time immemorial. There’s a level of the mind at work, universally among all of us, since the beginning of time. In addition to the intellect, which constitutes one level of thinking, there’s also symbols that rest in our unconscious that are the source of all our conscious thoughts. Thus, we spend the first and last stages of our lives immersed in unconsciousness and self-involvement.
As a child and elderly person, we are submerged in unconscious psychic happenings, posing problem for others as we are less reliant on ourselves. The middle two stages of life involve gaining consciousness, if and when we learn to be artists in life and consequently align our thinking with the primordial images of the unconscious (113). Jung seems to imply towards the end of this chapter that these primordial concerns entail spirituality, awareness of death, belief in life after death, and so forth – occupations that have been ingrained in humans since the earliest times. It’s what unites all of us together, the similarities we share as living and breathing beings. If we come to embrace them in the middle stages of life, then we will live our lives to the fullest and age gracefully and blissfully.
**Note: Jung can be criticized on account of his overly functionalist approach to evaluating people’s beliefs. For example, he assesses the significance of believe in the afterlife based on its consonance with “psychic hygiene.” In other words, if it’s good for your mind, then it’s a good belief system to have. However, this presupposes that people have an absolute choice in what they believe in, when in fact, their belief system may be attributed to the conditioning in their upbringing and elides other modes of experiences that compel people to believe in certain things, while not in others, that have little or nothing to do with its functionality. Thus, the oft-stated, ‘it just spoke to me,’ is a case in point. Or ‘I had an out of the body experience’ that convinced me of X belief as opposed to the purpose it serves the human psyche. Finally, we can question this assumption on the philosophical grounds that a belief system may be ‘good’ for someone regardless of whether it serves the psychic hygiene. Can certain principles embody intrinsic value without being entirely contingent on the outcome of espousing the belief? After all, to assert that a principle must have value based only on the outcome it produces is to negate its possible value in and of itself.