A recently retired academic, with a background in psychology and philosophy.
What is the ‘meaning’ of old age? Why do humans often live several decades beyond sexual maturity? If longevity is not merely the byproduct of societal and scientific advances, the later seasons of human life must have a broader significance for the species. What could that be?
A helpful entry point into the psychological aspects of these questions is afforded by the views of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the great Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology.
The Paradox of Individuation
Unlike his mentor Sigmund Freud, who in his theories emphasized the preeminence of childhood in the development of the individual, Jung attributed far greater importance to adulthood. In The Stages of Life (1933), he outlined a view of the functional significance of the two main segments of an individual's adult life: youth, and middle-to-late age (the latter roughly extending between the ages of 35 and 70, and beyond).
In his view, the purpose of normal young adulthood is self-evident: It leads to the progressive development of the individual through a process of increasing adaptation to societal demands, and to the fulfillment of nature-mandated tasks through the formation of a family and the care of children (Jung, 1933).
What is, then, the 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 drive to achieve (ideally) the full realization of one’s personality, as opposed to pragmatic achievement and social usefulness, that are the guiding principles of early adulthood. In his view, 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.
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 be negotiated in the second half of life; that it should lead only towards the very end of life to a personality finally able to deal maturely with the worlds within and without.
The more conventional views of human development, which locate its high point within a few years past 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.
One way out of this seeming paradox - it seems to me - may occur when the development of personality unfolds 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 humanity has been significantly shaped by great personalities, often in their later years. In the case of many outstanding creators of culture - ideologues, philosophers, artists and scientists - although their most significant contributions are by no means limited to the second half of life, yet it appears that their understanding of life as expressed in their medium of choice changed appreciably with age (see e.g., Wagner, 2009 for a discussion pertaining to the arts) .
Accordingly, 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 aging individual.
Although this conclusion may validate the functional significance of later adult development for the overall evolution of humankind, this path to meaning is 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 state of affairs I find less than satisfactory.
The Medicant of Immortality
As a physician, and from the 'standpoint of psychotherapy', Jung approves of the athanasias pharmakon (medicant of immortality), prescribed by many philosophical and 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 this 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 (concerning the latter, see, e.g., the Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Centre, 2014) revealed that a vast 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? His essay 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. Which is in a way yet another act of faith.
A Cosmic Role for Human Consciousness
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 - and morally compels, one might add - 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, exists but barely. 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, this one.
The Conscious Experience of Growing Old Is Enough. Perhaps.
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.
If so, 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, striving toward this state is in itself sufficient justification for seconding the individuation process in the later years. The path itself is the destination.
Those of us who are less inclined towards mythologizing our lives would probably be content with that alone.
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.
Wagner, M. (2009). Art and Aging. Gerontology, 55, 361-370.
© 2014 John Paul Quester