Jung on aging

In his essay “The Stages of Life,” C. G. Jung describes consciousness as the source of our “problem,” contrasted with nature and instinct. For modern times, the “problem” disrupts the psychological progression of the life stages but also challenges the function of culture, which is self-individuation and self-development. The cultivation of self that ought to logically be the provenance of maturity, experience, and wisdom, is undermined and overthrown by the artificiality of consciousness, not only the continued adolescent behavior of older people as an example but more deeply the modern failure to cultivate value.

Thought, like desire and achievement, does not address the problem of consciousness but exacerbates it. The tendency of our thinking is rigidly linear, but there is an alternative. As Jung puts it:

We only understand that kind of thinking which is a mere equation from which nothing comes out but what we have put in. That is the working of the intellect. But besides that there is a thinking in principle images, in symbols which are older than historical man, which are inborn in him from the earliest times, and eternally living, outlasting all generations, which make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.

Jung argues that we must be attentive to these “primordial images of consciousness” because that process can supersede rational thought in making an order to our lives. He laments how few people are aware of the character of the stages of life, how many enter them successively neglecting their significance and failing to make the necessary and healthy transformations.

Jung uses the sun to illustrate the stages of life. Visualize a circle, then place a cross within it to create four quadrants, which, from the lower left clockwise to the lower right, represent the sun’s progress across the sky, and our human stages of life from infancy to old age. The first quadrant is childhood, when our consciousness emerges from nowhere to begin its progress. Youth should not be impeded but allowed to grow, experience, and learn. In the long midday and afternoon span the adult years of career, profession, social obligation, and self-image, conforming to the many responsibilities of the ego and the instincts of the species. Then the sun begins to set, and new lessons by the aging must be observed and taken to heart in order to appropriately derive the lessons of this last stage. Jung draws out these lessons:

Aging people should know that their lives are not mounting and expanding, but that an inexorable inner process enforces the contraction of life. … For the aging person it is a duty and necessity to devote serious attention to himself. After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. Instead of doing likewise, many older people prefer to be hypochondriacs, misers, pedants, applauders of the past or else eternal adolescents — all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half must be governed by the principles of the first. … Money-making, social achievement, family and posterity are nothing but plain nature, not culture. Culture lies outside the purpose of nature. Could by any chance culture be the meaning and purpose of the second half of life?

Jung speculates that life after death offered by religion is a concession to those who cannot tolerate the transition from middle years to old age, and especially cannot discern the significance of what old age offers the psyche: the opportunity to pursue the primordial symbols left behind in the rise of consciousness and “problems.” Would that we could perceive these possibilities early in life, nurturing them so that our entire lives would fall not so much into delineated stages but into a continuity of inner self-development.