- Education and Science
On Jung's Views About Psychological Development in the Second Half of Life
On the Meaning of Old Age
What is the ‘meaning’ of old age? Why do humans often live several decades beyond sexual maturity? If we do not accept that longevity is merely the byproduct of societal and scientific advances, then the later seasons of human life must have a significance for the species. What could that be?
I propose here to briefly discuss* some of the views of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the great Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology, a psychological theory and practice which still has many adherents today.
Unlike his mentor Sigmund Freud, who in his theories emphasized the prominence of childhood in the development of the individual, Jung attributed far greater importance to the later stages of human development. In one of his writings, The Stages of Life (1933), he outlined a view of the functional significance of the two productive segments of an individual's life: youth, and middle-to-late adulthood (the latter roughly extending between the ages of 35 and 70, and beyond).
In his view, the function of normal young adulthood is self-evident: It must lead to the progressive development of the individual through a process of increasing adaptation to societal demands, and the fulfillment of nature-mandated tasks through the formation of a family and the care of children (Jung, 1933).
What is then purpose of the afternoon of life, once the above goals have been met? Jung’s answer is: the development of a 'wider consciousness’. This process includes the differentiation and integration into one’s consciousness and behavior of hitherto unconscious components of the personality, and it is thus coextensive with the process of ‘individuation’ – of becoming a ‘true individual’. The 'meaning' of the second half of life, therefore, rests upon the effort to reach (ideally) the full realization of one’s personality, as opposed to pragmatic achievement and usefulness that are the guiding principles of early adulthood. The development of one’s consciousness and personality is a natural process, and must therefore be of functional significance for the species as a whole, and indeed for nature itself.
Identifying this significance requires in my view to first address what might be regarded as the paradox of individuation: that the most momentous and demanding turns of this path should have to be negotiated in the second half of life; that it should lead only towards the end of life to a personality finally able to deal maturely with the worlds within and without. The more onventional views of human development, which set its high point at the end of adolescence, are not exposed to such a paradox: the early yet mostly formed personality can look forward to engaging the world throughout the longest and most productive period of life.
I suggest that one way out of this seeming paradox becomes clear when the development of personality occurs in an individual endowed with unusual talent and capacity for insight - when personality and genius meet. It is a truism that the historical course of the human species has been powerfully shaped also by the role played by great personalities, often in their later years. With regard to the great creators of culture: artists, philosophers and scientists, although their contributions are certainly not limited to their activity in the second half of life, it appears that their understanding of life as expressed in their productions changes significantly with age. It follows that certain crucially valuable insights about nature or the human condition may be the exclusive prerogative of the older person, dependent as they are on a confrontation with the existential themes and experiences of the second half of life as it takes place within the gifted individual.
Although this conclusion may validate the functional significance of later adult development for the overall evolution of humankind, this path to meaning is yet not experientially open to most people, who must find a raison d'etre for their later years within the narrower boundaries of their own potential. Some of Jung’s answers to this issue I find less than satisfactory.
As a physician, and from the 'standpoint of psychotherapy', Jung approves of the athanasias pharmakon (medicant of immortality), prescribed by many religious teachings: we strive to the very end towards the development of the personality vis-a-vis the reality of death because the latter is not to be seen as an end but as a transition to another plane of existence: as a door, not a wall, our condition in the other world being determined by the level of development achieved in this life. There is no denying that those who can embrace this viewpoint have thus 'solved' the riddle of individuation. Recent surveys conducted in both Europe and North America revealed that a majority of the members of these societies holds some belief in the continuance of life after death. Is then neurosis the only alternative to the inability on the part of many other contemporaries to second intellectually this 'truth of the blood', as Jung calls it? The essay under discussion leans towards this conclusion, a rather dismal one for those who cannot subscribe to such beliefs.
Jung's long meditation over the problems of individuation has offered other suggestions. We can, he argues elsewhere, simply accept that there is 'a certain incommensurability between the mystery of existence and human understanding’. All we can do then is to submit to what appears to be the 'law of our being', and to second it in Pascalian fashion by betting on the ultimate meaningfulness of life, however obscure it is to us.
In his final years, Jung proposed a grander view, centered on the claim that humankind plays an indispensable role in the universe. 'Man' is the 'second creator' of the world, He alone can confer upon it full existence, for without him the world 'would have gone on in the profoundest night of non-being down to its unknown end’ (Jung, 1963). This ability to 'create objective existence and meaning' results from Man's awareness of himself and of the world. Consciousness secures for every man and woman an ‘indispensable place in the great process of being’ and therefore fully justifies that drive towards a wider consciousness that is at the root of individuation.
Perhaps more simply put: a universe that does not know that it exists, barely exists. Through the consciousness of creatures such as ourselves, as developed especially in the second half of our lives, the universe becomes aware of itself and therefore that much more real. As conscious beings we therefore serve a cosmic purpose, to which each of us contributes by deepening our awareness of the world to the fullest extent within our grasp. An appealing if somewhat self-aggrandizing perspective, one might say.
There is more to consider. Mythologist Joseph Campbell noted in an interview that people do not need so much to perceive that their life is meaningful; what they are pursuing, rather, is the experience of being alive. Thus, beyond the question of its ultimate meaningfulness in the face of death, the work towards individuation retains profound value for what it brings to the individual in terms of his or her ability to meet the deeper realities and demands of life at its various stages, including the final one in which the gift of life is to be relinquished. The ability to do so gracefully, without 'backward glances', is one of the most precious products of the later stages of individuation, and results from the shift of the centre of the personality from the narcissistic ego to a broader, less ego-centered self. This shift generates according to Jung 'a consciousness detached from the world', a condition which constitutes a 'natural preparation for death'. Even in the absence of a meaning-giving myth, then, the ability to achieve this state is in itself sufficient justification for engaging in the individuation process in the later years. Those of us who are less inclined towards mythologizing our lives would probably be content with that alone.
*In this discussion I often drew liberally from a work I published some years ago on a professional journal under my real name
Jung, C. G. (1933). Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Harvest/HJB
Jung, C. G. (1963). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London: Collins/Routledge & Kegan Paul