Re-Thinking Mid-Life

I recently came across an article by Dr. John Grohol on the Psych Central website: Three Things You Didn’t Know About About Carl Jung’s Psychosis. I appreciated it because it brings into relief certain misconceptions about Jung’s psychology; about unconscious life in general and mid-life in particular.

Depth psychology refers to Jung’s ideas of the unconscious and individuation, because he most clearly conceptualized them. But, these facts of experience are common properties of humanity. It was only (!) Jung who arranged them into an empirical picture.

He outlined the spiritual nature of the mid-life process, and the urge to wholeness implicit in it can be a severe test for a partial ego. The unconscious has a disintegrating and devouring quality which can frighten and overwhelm. It’s a reality so foreign to consciousness that nobody chooses it. Nonetheless, it’s the fate of many to try to come to terms with it.

However suddenly, subtly, or eventually the unconscious may directly insinuate itself into some lives, its indirect influence on consciousness forms humanity’s deepest contradictions. Few in an outer-directed culture see such effects as anything as fantastic as a demand for inner development (or the repression of it), and many have no need to see it. Symptoms mean disease, and the need to live according to our natures remains an idea we can’t conceive until we’re confronted with the experience.

One’s sensitivity to it is a matter of degree, which even in the extreme is less pathological than simply human. “Pathological” and “psychotic” may evoke images of lunatic asylums, yet entire cultures exhibit symptoms so widespread as to be normal from their own perspectives. Another vantage-point could as well view them as crazy. Who sees war as a mass psychotic outbreak or racial hatred, a collective form of schizophrenic paranoia?

Not only does Dr. Grohol’s article serve up on a plate mainstream psychology’s misunderstanding of the causes and purposes of mental “disease”, it exposes the fear and anxiety inherent in the direct experience of its demands. Science can only rationalize the effects of emotional processes it can neither experience nor evaluate. A century ago, however interpreted, spirit was a living reality. The mystery it once circumscribed no longer speaks to the new intellect. It sinks back into the unconscious and, as in a dream, re-emerges in strange forms.

Though extremes exist at either end of the spectrum of how mental health is defined, there’s no real dividing line between normal and pathological, conscious and unconscious — even you and me, if we have some working concept of the projections entangling subject and object; more so if the object is as abstract as the idea of psychosis in a subject as certain of it as a doctor.

A thing is what we think it is until we learn more about it, and there are some things we don’t want to learn more about. It would seem that the direct experience of the unconscious might qualify as such a thing — a psychosis according to popular psychology. At least, Dr. Grohol thinks it is. It was the crux of Jung’s psychology. He discovered that consciousness is subject to (and relative to) unconscious functions which seek their own destiny. The more ego opposes them, the more problems it experiences.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” This intuitive truth, revered for millennia by those who felt it, were in fear and awe of the mystery it alluded to, has now re-emerged in psychological parlance as a “psychosis.” The fear of God is rationalized; Job’s suffering, a moot point.

I give Dr. Grohol credit for the reserve in his third premise: “Jung’s unconscious journey probably wasn’t the same as the unwanted psychosis people experience today.” Well, it was Jung’s — but he didn’t want it any more than anyone wants it. It happened to him. It was an unconscious need born in a mind destined to reveal a new way of looking at ourselves. But, does that mean it didn’t spring from the same well — and for the same purposes?

Dr. Grohol said that while “Jung described his visions as a type [my italics] of “psychosis” or “schizophrenia,” those terms meant something different a hundred years ago than they do today.” Indeed. The way Jung saw them is even more relevant because of that. The problem is that it required volumes to define them.

Outside the limitations of “pop” psychology, they’re not really definable except through a kind of philosophy grounded on empirical fact: an understanding through experience. “Today,” wrote Dr. Grohol, “the terms describe a specific constellation of symptoms, one of which is the meaningful and significant interruption the disorder makes upon a person’s ordinary, daily life.”

But — that’s the purpose of mid-life: “the meaningful and significant interruption the disorder makes upon a person’s ordinary, daily life.” It has all the symptoms of compulsion, obsession, depression, even a “type of psychosis or schizophrenia.” How else could we be shaken to the core from ego’s illusion enough to feel the mystery drawing it to a fate beyond its comprehension?

For an exploration of the unconscious which goes beyond traditional ideas of pathological/normal in search of a more natural truth, see: A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious.

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