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.

19 responses

  1. Eve, thank you. Those two simple words aren’t really adequate to express what I mean, but I’m very grateful to have found this site, which WordPress directed me to when I hit “random blog”. I see we have a friend in common, though — sweet Smiler — and I recall having seen you over at her place. I’m so glad to have been directed here.

  2. David, you’re right, of course. Some children spend their entire childhoods surviving and never get a chance to just live like normal children. Some of our children adopted in adolescence lived that way, and I’d be lying if I said their roads to healing were smooth, easy, or complete even now that they are adults. There’s a lot of pain in them. My answers are not satisfying put briefly like this, because yes, it takes years. In my personal math, I think it takes as many years working on it as a childhood takes, which is about 18 years. That’s putting it starkly, but this is how I see it.

    However, the orphan who has had childhood (and real parents, etc.) stolen from him has no better option to take than to work at creating his own hearth.

    Here are a couple of articles about what I mean:

    Orphan Quest: Finding One’s Myth

    The Orphan’s Call

    I have a book-length manuscript about this topic and spent about two years researching the orphan archetype in fictional works. I will be trying to publish this sometime in the next year or two as I’m able to work on it, and providing no other book introduces itself and asks to be written. This is where my rather scholarly approach comes from and why I sometimes return to this captivating subject. I believe, with Jung, that every person is an “orphan, alone.” I do believe there is a way to live with that loneliness. I also believe that the human spirit can be healed through love.

    So, David, in the end I wish you love and lots of it. It probably sounds lame to wish you love on a blog. But I’ve learned in the past (almost) year that people are people wherever you meet them, and that we can and do reach out to one another through the written word and love on each other. And it seems that you’re reaching out on your blog, too. I pray that your hearth will be no less satisfying because you’ve had to build it yourself, and I pray loving, strong, protective inner Mother and Father for you, my new friend.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful answer. I do know that nobody has a perfect childhood … everyone suffers in the process of growing up. I think, though, that some people get to actually be children despite the pain of childhood, and others are denied that right. And those of us to whom it was denied have to figure out how to live on a backward timeline. I know people do it, so I suppose I will manage it if I keep trying.

    I’ll look through your archives for the posts you’re referring to … I think I would find them interesting.

  4. David, “blighted childhoods.” How beautiful and sad that sounds.

    I have two immediate answers. One is that a person with a blighted childhood–no safe place to which he can return–must make his own safe place. This is possible; but it’s difficult and painful, but it sounds like you already know that.

    The other answer is that many of us who do have safe places to return to mentally also suffered in childhood. There are fewer and fewer perfect or idyllic childhoods.

    If you read some of my entries about the orphan’s archetypal journey and how different it is than the prospective hero raised with a comforting home and hearth, it will address some of what I think about what you asked. I’ve actually thought and read a lot about it for various reasons; I just haven’t fully addressed it (I think that would take at least a book). But I do think about it and I know there are answers and solutions.

    My husband had a blighted childhood (we call it being raised by wolves). So I think I know what you’re talking about. He has discovered what he never had through faith, through the love of a wife, children, and friends. And other experiences. But it’s not easy.

  5. I wonder sometimes … for those of us with completely blighted childhoods … how do we rediscover what we never had in the first place? It worries me quite a lot, as I see my friends in middle age, blossoming as they start to join the spirit of childhood with the richness of their life experiences, rediscovering themselves, and bringing their childhood creativity and freedom into alignment with who they want to be in the world as adults.

    I wonder how people tap back into that wellspring when it was cemented over at a very young age, and never really tasted at all. Maybe I’ll find out after a few more years of therapy. At least I’m not buying a sports car. So things could be worse.

  6. David, one of the things that keeps me from climbing trees these days is that I have a friend about my age who fell out of a tree last year and broke her arm and collarbone in about seven places and had to have several surgeries to fix it back up. And she still has a lot of pain. That’s enough to make a person think twice before climbing a tree; getting older is a challenge, and I can only imagine how with your challenges you could get stuck.

    At least you had those cherries! 🙂

  7. I just recently climbed a Bing cherry tree to get on the roof for a more stable cherry picking platform. After a half hour of picking, I suddenly felt like a mouse in a live trap. I had just realized it was easy going up but with my disabilities coming down was a different story. My nephew handed me the portable telephone and called the fire department, whom I found out were, of course, putting out fires. I sat in the shade and ate most of the cherries, until “rescued.”

  8. Lemonytree, interesting comment. I read on another blog somewhere lately that we tend to pick up the mannerisms of whatever authors we’re reading. I think this is true; I carry my books with me in my head as well as in my hand.

    However, I used Jung’s life as an example. I haven’t been reading Jung lately; I’ve been reading Pulitzer Prize winners so that I can craft my upcoming Pulitzer Prize winning book.

    Ahahahahaha.

  9. Anna, I think it becomes eccentric when we’ve outgrown the tree-climbing stage, either by age 12 or by age 22 (I think college students are temporarily allowed leave of their senses while they are in college).

    After that, it’s all eccentric and odd. There’s a rule that middle-aged women must not run, climb trees, or get out of hand with their grocery carts at the supermarket.

  10. RG, your comment made me smile. I like the image of the middle-aged man building sand castles, and also of the boy inside him doing the same.

    Yes, I agree with C. S. Lewis and the feeling you describe is familiar to me, too. I could go so far as to say that, when I turn the gaze of my inner eye toward that “something deeper,” I’m overcome with longing and sometimes despair. I don’t know how to get there. Yet.

    Maybe it is heaven. Saint Paul said the entire creation groans, and I too groan with it. So, yes, I think I know what you mean. I really long to see His face, and to receive that white stone with a name written on it that no one knows but the two of us.

  11. No, I don’t climb trees anymore… When and why does that ‘normal stuff ‘ become eccentric/bizarre/remote? Such disconnected lives we live.

  12. Eve, by all means, climb a tree–or two. A lady I know in her 40’s still climbs trees.

    I experience what Jung talked about by building sand castles. My children think it’s silly for a grown man to do that, but it brings me such joy and peace. Some of my happiest childhood moments were at the beach.

    Do you think, as C. S. Lewis did, that these childhood memories of something sublime is an indication that something even more sublime is out there? After all, I realize that however much joy I feel at certain moments, there is something deeper that I long for that nothing quite satisfies.

    My best sand castle is still not the ideal sand castle that I know must exist somewhere.

    Whenever certain music moves me deeply, I have an intution that there is an even more sublime music that is beyond our physical sense of hearing. Sometimes in my dreams, I think I hear it, but then I realize that I am only hearing an auditory representation of it–not the ideal music itself.

    But I know that it exists, and that I wouldn’t have a longing for it, if it didn’t.

  13. This is completly being, what u read…this is true understanding. Getting drenched & soaked.

    “To exprenice a book is to become one of its charachters” jj & this article is a perfect example.

  14. I don’t know about Jung, but our recent foray into the land of LEGOs has had me making the same little houses I used to make as a girl. I find them very, very satisfying!

    I can’t wait to hear what you do with your 6 hours a day come autumn. Even if it’s a bunch of nothing in particular.

  15. Alida, from our adult perspective, this does make what we’re doing now for our children a priority, doesn’t it? Childhood seems over quickly, yet has such significance.

  16. “…I have no plan or outline for the coming 30 or 35 years of my life.”

    I had a plan once. Now, I keep just a general direction. It seems to work better for me:) There is so much we think we are in control of, but as I get older I’ve realized that even when I look around every possible corner…sometimes I am just not in control.

    I love the memories you keep. Something special it seems about grandmother’s and childhood.

    I’m excited for you. I think you are in a good place. Imagine if your life, due to circumstance or bad decision making, WERE all planned out. That certainly wouldn’t be very exciting, but just as frightening.

    Childhood is the foundation for the rest of your life. It’s wonderful to have good, solid places to go back to again and again, whether for strength or solace or just for plain old happy memories. Something to keep in mine as I raise my little ones. Thanks.

  17. Anna, the house I grew up in backed up to wheat fields divided by a tree-lined creek. My brothers and I spent hours playing out there; it was heaven.

    I wasn’t as forward-thinking as you were, though. I had no thought of growing up or about what such liberty and luxury would do for me when I was older.

    Crazy question, but do you ever climb trees now? I don’t. But I’ve been thinking about it.

  18. Posting this again in the right place!

    Thank you for the welcome! In a strange coincidence – one of my strong memories from childhood was of sitting in a tree in a field of grasses and the wind blowing and rushing through them and of me knowing right there and then that this moment would be a nostalgic memory for me when I was much older… And the picture you’ve posted in the post above – of the field and trees is the exact scene!

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