Individuation: Jung’s Myth for Our Time (by James Hollis)
“The experience of the Middle Passage is not unlike awakening to find that one is alone on a pitching ship, with no port in sight. One can only go back to sleep, jump ship or grab the wheel and sail on.
At the moment of decision, the high adventure of the soul is never more clear. In grabbing the wheel we take responsibility for the journey, however frightening it might be, however lonely or unfair it may seem. In not grabbing the wheel, we stay stuck in the first adulthood, stuck in the neurotic aversions which constitute our operant personality and, therefore, our self-estrangement. At no point do we live more honestly, or with more integrity, than when, surrounded by others yet knowing oneself to be alone, the journey of the soul beckons and we say “yes” to it all. That is when, as a character in a play by Christopher Fry says,
“Affairs have become soul-sized, thank God !”
In his autobiography Jung writes:
“I have frequently seen people become neurotic when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life. They seek position, marriage, reputation, outward success or money, and remain unhappy and neurotic even when they have attained what they were seeking. Such people are usually confined within too narrow a spiritual horizon. Their life has not sufficient content, sufficient meaning. If they are enabled to develop into more spacious personalities, the neurosis generally disappears.”
Jung’s point is essential, for all of us have lived lives constrained within the narrow confines of our own time, place and personal history. To live a more abundant life we are obliged to understand the limits within which we were raised. The implicit premise of our culture, that through materialism, narcissism or hedonism we would be happy, is clearly bankrupt. Those who have embraced such values are not happy or complete.
What we need is not unexamined “truths” but living myth, that is, a structure of value which guides the soul’s energies in a way that is consistent with our nature. While it is often useful to pick through the rubble of the past for images which speak to us as individuals, rarely is it possible to wholly embrace the mythologies of another time and place. We are obliged to find our own.
The necessity of finding our path is obvious, but major obstacles stand in the way. Let us review for a moment the symptoms characteristic of the midlife transition. They are boredom, repeated job or partner shifts, substance abuse, self-destructive thoughts or acts, infidelity, depression, anxiety and growing compulsivity. Behind these symptoms there are two fundamental truths. The first is that there is an enormous force pressing from below. Its urgency is felt as disruptive, causing anxiety when acknowledged and depression when suppressed.
The second fundamental truth is that the old patterns which kept such inner urgency at bay are repeated with growing anxiety but decreasing efficacy. Changing one’s job or relationship does not change one’s sense of oneself over the long run. When increasing pressure from within becomes less and less containable by the old strategies, a crisis of selfhood erupts. We do not know who we are, really, apart from social roles and psychic reflexes. And we do not know what to do to lessen the pressure.
Such symptoms announce the need for substantive change in a person’s life. Suffering quickens consciousness, and from new consciousness new life may follow. The task is daunting, for one must first acknowledge that there is no rescue, no parent to make everything better and no way to go back to an earlier time. The Self has sought growth by exhausting the tired strategies of the ego. The ego structure which one worked so hard to create is now revealed to be petty, frightened and out of answers. At midlife the Self maneuvers the ego assemblage into crisis in order to bring about a correction of course.
Underlying the symptoms that typify the Middle Passage is the assumption that we shall be saved by finding and connecting with someone or something new in the outer world. Alas, for the drowning midlife sailor there are no such life preservers. We are in the sea-surge of the soul, along with many others to be sure, but needing to swim under our own power. The truth is simply that what we must know will come from within. If we can align our lives with that truth, no matter how difficult the abrasions of the world, we will feel healing, hope and new life. The experience of early childhood, and later of our culture, alienated us from ourselves. We can only get back on course by reconnecting with our inner truths.
In December of 1945 an Arab peasant found a number of ancient manuscripts buried in large jars within caves. These manuscripts seem to have been the texts of the gnostics, early Christians who relied more on personal, revealed experience than on official pronouncements of the church. One of those manuscripts was titled “The Gospel According to Thomas.” Reportedly, it contains the secret sayings of Jesus and if that is so they reveal a much different person from the one revealed by the other disciples. One of Jesus’ utterances exactly addresses the point we must accept if we are to undergo transformation at midlife. He said,
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
“The gods are near but difficult to grasp; where danger is greatest, however, deliverance grows stronger.”
It is not, then, a matter of living without myth, but rather which myth, for we are always guided by images, consciously or unconsciously. Consciously we may subscribe to a set of beliefs and practices which accord with collective values, like the pursuit of wealth or acceding to group norms, but the price of such accommodation is neurosis. Or we may be living out a false myth such as, “I must forever be the good child, eschewing anger and serving others.” Such a guiding imago may be so deeply unconscious that one has always reacted that way and can hardly conceive of another. Neither outer conformity nor inner compliance supports wholeness. Indeed, one is repeatedly enjoined to serve the Outer, and when the collision occurs, to continue service to the programmed expectations. Again, the stability of the society is served, but at the cost of the individual. In his 1939 speech to the Guild for Pastoral Psychology in London, Jung noted that we are forced to choose between outer ideologies or private neurosis. Only the path of individuation could serve as a viable alternative. This is still true.
The concept of individuation represents Jung’s myth for our time in the sense of a set of images which guide the soul’s energies. Simply put, individuation is the developmental imperative of each of us to become ourselves as fully as we are able, within the limits imposed on us by fate. Again, unless we consciously confront our fate, we are tied to it. We must separate who we are from what we have acquired, our de facto but false sense of self.
“I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.”
This sentence must be conscious to us each day if we are to become more than prisoners of our fate.”
Note from owner of this blog:
- Dr. Jung never wrote an autobiography: Memories Dreams Reflections is not an Autobiography
- Dr. Jung never said: “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”This is why no citation is ever provided for it.
What Dr. Jung said was: It is not I who create myself, rather I happen to myself. ~Carl Jung, CW 11, Para 391