Going Back, Moving Forward

Thinking back to the safe places of childhood may help us to move forward developmentally. The example of Jung’s life will serve to illustrate how an individual may break through his own ego resistances and find a path to the true Self. Around the age of 40, Jung broke his professional association with Freud, having disagreed with him on several key theoretical points. He left his position as a professor, writing that “my whole being was seeking for something still unknown which might confer meaning upon the banality of life” (1961, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books 165). At night he had dream after significant dream, and he worked with himself as he urged his patients to work with him, by analyzing the dreams. “The dreams, however” he wrote, “could not help me over my feeling of disorientation.”

On the contrary, I lived as if under constant inner pressure. At times this became so strong that I suspected there was some psychic disturbance in myself. Therefore I twice went over all the details of my entire life, with particular attention to childhood memories; for I thought there might be something in my past which I could not see and which might possibly be the cause of the disturbance. But this retrospection led to nothing but a fresh acknowledgement of my own ignorance. Thereupon I said to myself, “Since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me.” Thus I consciously submitted myself to the impulses of the unconscious.

This moment was a turning point in my fate, but I gave in only after endless resistances and with a sense of resignation. For it was a painfully humiliating experience to realize that there was nothing to be done except play childish games (Ibid. 173-174).

The first thing that came to the surface was a childhood memory from perhaps my tenth or eleventh year. At that time I had had a spell of playing passionately with building blocks. I distinctly recalled how I had built little houses and castles, using bottles to form the sides of gates and vaults. Somewhat later I had used ordinary stones, with mud for mortar. These structures had fascinated me for a long time. To my astonishment, this memory was accompanied by a good deal of emotion. “Aha,” I said to myself, “there is still life in these things. The small boy is still around, and possesses a creative life which I lack. But how can I make my way to it?” For as a grown man it seemed impossible to me that I should be able to bridge the distance from the present back to my eleventh year. Yet if I wanted to re-establish contact with that period, I had no choice but to return to it and take up once more that child’s life with his childish games.

Thereafter, the middle-aged Jung spent hours building entire communities of small stone structures, playing every morning and afternoon until his patients arrived. “And,” he wrote, “if I was finished with my work early enough in the evening, I went back to building. In the course of this activity my thoughts clarified and I was able to grasp the fantasies whose presence in myself I dimly felt” (ibid 174).

Of course, Jung’s ego found these child-like activities questionable. “Now, really, what are you about?” he asked himself. “You are building a small town, and doing it as if it were a rite!”

I had no answer to my question, only the inner certainty that I was on the way to discovering my own myth. For the building game was only a beginning. It released a stream of fantasies which I later carefully wrote down.

This sort of thing has been consistent with me, and at any time in my later life when I came up against a blank wall, I painted a picture or hewed stone. Each such experience proved to be a rite d’entrée for the ideas and works that followed hard upon it (Ibid. 175).

Returning to Real

Jung had to go back to the time when his activities had yielded strong feelings. This, for him, was during his eleventh year when he built structures from small pebbles and stones. So he took up the activity in adulthood again, hoping that this would inspire his unconscious to communicate more with him. It did.

I think that as they grow older, people have to know on some gut level that they must go back to when they were last authentically themselves, before they can move on. I think so because some middle-aged people try to go backward along a false path, and acquire the trappings of youth such as a mistress or lover, a sports car, or a life without a spouse or children, just like it was before. These methods do not work in the long run, of course, and do nothing to propel the individual forward into consciousness. They fail to work just as the first 30 years failed to work, and after more practice with the mundane, old age and death are still as inevitable as always.

Those who do not throw off the shackles of mispent youth for misspent middle- or old-age often fare no better. Many elderly people talk often and at length about their childhoods, but to no effect. I think this is because they are spending their old age as they spent their youth: obsessed, compulsively filling time with what does not satisfy. They spent their twenties, thirties and forties as they are spending their 50s, 60s, and 70s, doing time, not livingtime. They reminisce, but theirs is not a reminiscense like Jung’s that will feed and sustain them or show them the way home. So it is that they live in old age in a way that was characterological for them in their youth, and it’s meaningless.

Contrast this with the vibrant elderly people still lecturing, teaching, working, volunteering, and contributing in the creative arts, in helping professions, or in education. Only in such ever-growing intellectual communities are people who kept on living fully and authentically still respected.

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