The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) did not formulate a specific stage theory of the human life cycle as did his mentor Sigmund Freud who theorized about the stages of psycho-sexual development (oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital). However, throughout his life he gave us hints and insights into the chronological features of the human life span.
In an essay he wrote in 1931 entitled ”The Stages of Life,” (from ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” Volume 8, The Collected Works of Carl Jung), Jung used the metaphor of the sun sweeping across the horizon to characterize the lifespan. He writes: “In the morning it rises from the nocturnal sea of unconsciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before it in an expanse that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament” (p. 397). Beneath the horizon in this model lies the collective unconscious, that universal repository of instinctual images or archetypes that are an integral part of the human psyche, and which are discernible in certain dreams of individuals, and also in important motifs found in world mythology and religion.
Children, in Jung’s view, emerge from this collective unconscious like the rising sun, still having a connection with it during the first few years of life, a phenomenon which can be seen in certain archetypal or Big dreams of young children. Jung emphasized, however, that children need to put this archetypal experience behind them in order to develop their conscious egos so that they can adapt to the world around them.
Jung also observed that children, in their unconscious state, exist in what he called a participation mystique (a term borrowed from the French anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl) or a state of undifferentiated psychological unity with their parents’ unconscious. In fact, he often treated the neurotic complaints of his child patients by analyzing the dreams of the parents, and said that much of a child’s early difficulties in adapting to the world was due to the unlived lives of the parents.
Jung believed the awareness of very young children exists only as ”islands” of consciousness in an anarchic or chaotic state. It then evolves into the development of an ego-complex (which he characterized as a monarchic or monistic stage). Finally consciousness develops into a divided, or dualistic state (he wrote: ”the inner division with one self, arises when, side by side with the series of ego-contents, a second series of equal intensity comes into being . . we might call it another second ego which can on occasion even wrest the leadership from the first” (p. 391).
According to Jung, consciousness that is fully differentiated from the parents normally takes place only at puberty, with the eruption of sexuality. He suggested that this important phase of differentiation has been instinctively recognized by indigenous cultures in their development of rites of initiation for young adolescents, which serve to tear them away from their parents both physically and psychologically and introduce them to the spiritual values and adult roles of the culture.
After puberty, the next broad stage that Jung characterized was that of youth (from just after puberty to middle life at thirty-five to forty). This is a stage that pits the developed ego against the demands of life, which Jung stated can ”harshly put an end to the dream of childhood.” He notes that “if the individual is sufficiently well prepared, the transition to a profession or career can take place smoothly” (p. 392). But this can also be a difficult time of adaptation if there are ”exaggerated expectations, underestimation of difficulties, unjustified optimism, or a negative attitude” (p. 392). Similarly, disturbances of psychic equilibrium caused by the sexual instinct, or feelings of inferiority, can also make these years of early adulthood highly problematic.
What is often the key difficulty in such situations, according to Jung, is the desire to cling to the earlier stage of childhood. He writes: “Something in us wishes to remain a child, to be unconscious or, at most, conscious only of the ego, to reject everything strange, or else subject it to our will, to do nothing, or else indulge our own craving for pleasure or power” (p. 393).
The next important stage or phase, to use Jung’s sun metaphor, is when the sun reaches the high point of its arc across the sky; when it is at ”high noon” or ”mid-life.” Jung is probably the first thinker in the western psychological tradition to discern the existence of a ”mid-life crisis” (decades before Gail Sheehy’s book Passages, turned it into a household term). Mid-life signals the entrance into what Jung called ”the second half of life.”
Most of his work regarding human development actually focuses on the psychological work to be done during this second half of life. He made a point of emphasizing that the second half of life calls to the fore a different and often compensatory set of values, goals, needs, and priorities from the first half of life. If the first half of life, for example, involved a lot of social striving, professional goals, and focus on self-aggrandizement, then the second half of life should focus more on familial relations, spiritual aspirations, and/or other more humanistic values. Jung writes: ”Often it is something like a slow change in a person’s character; in another case, certain traits may come to light which had disappeared since childhood, or again, one’s previous inclinations and interests begin to weaken and others take their place” (p. 395). Compensatory changes also can take place with respect to gender identity, as males develop both physical and psychological traits of the female, while females assume a more masculine inclination and physiognomy.
Then there is the season of life when the sun starts to sink toward the horizon. Jung devoted a lot of attention, especially in his own later years, to an articulation of the problems and opportunities of old age. He again was one of the first psychological thinkers to see the positive dimensions of aging, while still acknowledging the presence of debilitation, loss, and discontent. He wrote: “A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning” (p. 399).
In Jung’s later work, he would place a lot of emphasis on the importance of ”individuation” during these later years, where the ego that was so earnestly constructed and held onto in the first half of life, needs to recede in importance, and come into line with one’s larger view of life, incorporating a vital connection with the personal and collective unconscious, a constellation that he termed the Self. He also recognized the importance of old age to culture, noting how in most cultures old people have always been the guardians of the mysteries and the laws.
Finally, comes death itself, and Jung addressed himself to the attitudes that an older person can attach to his own demise. He put a lot of emphasis on an individual cultivating an attitude where they actually look ahead to death in a sense, using their religious, spiritual, philosophical, or aesthetic sensibilities to help them cope with this major life experience. Especially for those who have not developed much of themselves (where ”too much unlived life remains”), he suggests that ”it is particularly fatal for such people to look back.” He continues: ”I am convinced that it is hygienic . . . to discover in death a goal toward which one can strive, and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose” (p. 402).
For more information on Jung’s work on human development, and the rites of passage that cultures have fashioned for the different stages of life, see my book The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life.
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