Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The New Year and Jung’s Stages of Life

by Erel Shalit

C.G. Jung introduced the idea of studying and defining the goals of the second half of life. Daniel Levinson thus considered him “the father of the modern study of adult development.”[1]

Jung originally published his essay ‘The Stages of Life’ in 1930,[2] about twenty years before Erikson drew his epigenetic chart of psychosocial development. Jung emphasized the contrary directions of man’s focus during the first and second halves of life. Whereas in the first part of life, the development of a firm ego that takes its foothold in the world predominates, in the second part of life, the individual must turn toward Self and spirit.

‘The Stages of Life’ appeared in 1933 in Jung’s book Modern Man in Search of a Soul. It had initially been published as ‘Die seelische Probleme der menschlichen Alterstufen’ in Neue Zürcher Zeitung in 1930, but was later revised. His ideas regarding the stages of life will be our point of departure and guiding light throughout our discourse.

When Jung set out to “discuss the problems connected with the stages of life,” he devoted several pages of this brief essay to discuss the notion of problem. He claims that problem is the kernel of culture and consciousness. “There are no problems without consciousness,” says Jung. Confronting a problem instigates toward consciousness, and due to the development of consciousness, problems come into existence.[3] Furthermore, Jung emphasizes the psychological truth that serious problems can never be fully resolved—if they appear to be, then “something has been lost.” The meaning as well as the purpose of problems lie not in their solution but, rather, in being constantly worked on.[4] Similarly, happiness and welfare do not lie in wait to be found at the end of the rainbow, but are aspects of the process and of our attitude, with sadness and misery appropriate company at times of pain, difficulty and loss. The journey entails both the road we take and how we take that road, our conscious attitude.

Unmistakably, Jung’s conceptualization of the stages of life pertains to living the conscious life.


The first stage of life concerns the child’s evolving consciousness, which is based on perceiving the connection between different psychic contents. However, lacking a continuous memory in early childhood, consciousness is sporadic, rather like “single lamps or lighted objects in the far-flung darkness.”[5] Only when there is continuity of ego-memories does the ego-complex constellate, with a budding sense of subjective identity, whereby the child comes to speak of itself in first person.

Problems arise, says Jung, with the psychic birth and “conscious differentiation from the parents” in puberty.[6] This is not only an external process. By internalization, the external limitations become internal divisions, for instance, between opposing impulses. That is, the rise of consciousness both creates and is the result of an inner division between the ego and the perceived other—whether that other is an internal instinct or an external object, an autonomous complex detracting energy from the ego, or a split-off shadow.

The period of youth entails the transition from what Jung considers to be the dream of an essentially problem-free childhood to the harsh demands of life. The problem may be external, due, for instance, to “exaggerated expectations, underestimation of difficulties, unjustified optimism, or a negative attitude.” Nevertheless, problems unmistakably may arise, as well, from internal conflicts and disturbances in the psychic equilibrium; Jung mentions the sexual instinct and feelings of inferiority.[7]

It is in youth, says Jung, that the individual needs to recognize and accept “what is different and strange as a part of his own life,” in spite of the desire to cling “to the childhood level of consciousness,”[8] that is, a wish to avoid unpleasure, and to regress into a conflict-free existence.[9]

Achievement and usefulness, says Jung, “are the lodestars that guide us … to strike our roots in the world,” to find a place in society, which is essential in the first half of life. Development of a wider consciousness, “which we give the name of culture,”[10] is left, however, for a later stage in life. Therefore, while the child struggles to shape its individual ego, the aim in youth—or young adulthood—is to gain a place in society.

Jung’s main concern as expressed in this essay is the arrival at midlife. “The social goal,” he says, “is attained only at the cost of a diminution of personality. Many—far too many—aspects of life which should also have been experienced lie in the lumber-room among dusty memories; but sometimes, too, they are glowing coals under grey ashes.”[11]

Jung notes that around the age of forty, a slow process of character-change takes place. Interests and inclinations alter. Simultaneously, however, moral principles tend to harden and grow rigid, “as if the existence of these principles were endangered and it were therefore necessary to emphasize them all the more.”[12]

Jung ascribed the neurotic disturbances of adults to the common desire to prolong youth, and a reticence to crossing the threshold into maturity. The neurotic is someone “who can never have things as he would like them in the present.”[13] Typically, the neurotic person projects the cause of his suffering onto the past or the future, and we often hear him or her say, “if only this or that would/would not have happened,” or “if only … then …” The cult of youth and the widespread difficulty of accepting old age, typify the pathology of our era.

The fear of midlife is not of death, claims Jung, but of the sun’s descent, which means “the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning. … The sun ... draw[s] in its rays instead of emitting them. Light and warmth decline and are at last extinguished.”[14]

However, it seems to me that ultimately the fishing rod of midlife fears does indeed dip into the lake of death, when light and warmth are extinguished. This, then, may be compensated by, for instance, what for many may be a reassuring faith and belief in existence after death, or, alternatively, the ambition to live a meaningful life. In his essay ‘The Soul and Death,’ published in 1934, Jung does state that,
From the middle of life onward, only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life. For in the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal.[15]
The challenge in midlife is to come to terms with hitherto neglected features, sometimes conflicting with one’s conscious attitude and recognized values. Jung mentions, as well, how bodily characteristics of the opposite sex can be discerned in the older person.

The psychological and biological changes that a person undergoes in the second half of life may thus blur the distinction between male and female traits, though this may be a far cry from the erotic character of juvenile androgyny. Consequently, the man must now put his feminine substance to use, and, says Jung, the woman “her hitherto unused supply of masculinity.”[16] According to Jung’s Weltanschauung, certainly influenced by the Zeitgeist, the spirit of his time, he associated the masculine with logos and the feminine with Eros.

Thus, in midlife it may happen that “the husband discovers his tender feelings and the wife her sharpness of mind.”[17] These changes are dramatic and, says Jung, may lead to marital catastrophe. If so, I suppose that the wife’s sharpness of mind may be more threatening to the man, than showing his tender feelings would pose a danger to his wife.[18]

Jung expressed the essence of midlife transition beautifully when he says that, “what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”[19]

In the second half of life, man must withdraw from external preoccupations, and seriously prepare for old age, death and eternity—which amounts to a (not necessarily formal) religious attitude. “An old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it,” says Jung sharply and poetically.[20] Rhetorically he wonders if not culture, beyond the nature to which family and children pertain, is the “meaning and purpose of the second half of life.”[21]

To sum up, Jung’s ideas on the stages of life pertain to the development of consciousness as it manifests in the life cycle. The essence lies in the problem that faces the individual at each stage; a problem less to be resolved, but rather to be confronted and challenged. Jung thus emphasizes life as a process of becoming conscious, which transforms the experience of life into a living experience.

As the individual traverses the arc of life, he or she may be resistant to the problems posed by each transition, such as an expanding ego consciousness; striking roots in society; confronting the decline and integrating the opposites, including those of gender; and then death and eternity. Jung says that, “the art of life is the most distinguished and rarest of all the arts.”[22] For some travelers along the journey of life, the art of life becomes increasingly conceptual, for others more and more esthetic; for some minimalistic, for others increasingly abstract.

The second half of life should not merely be a repetition of one’s youth and young adulthood, but rather a period that enables integration by accentuating those matters of one’s psyche that have not been taken care of well enough.

Jung divides life into four parts. The Cycle of Life: Themes and Tales of the Journey elaborates on the respective stages less from a developmental perspective, but rather as an effort to extract the archetypal images at the core of each age.

[1]The Seasons of a Man’s Life, p. 4.
[2] Carl Gustav Jung, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 8, par. 749-795. NOTE: CW refers throughout to The Collected Works of C. G. Jung.
[3]  CW 8, par. 750, 754.
[4]  CW 8, par. 770.
[5]  CW 8, par. 755.
[6]  CW 8, par. 756.
[7]  CW 8, par. 761, 762.
[8]  CW 8, par. 764.
[9]  Cf. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, SE 18. The word unpleasure is “used to translate the German ‘Unlust,’ the pain or discomfort of instinctual tension, as opposed to ‘Schmertz,’ the sensation of pain. The pleasure principle is correctly the pleasure-unpleasure principle.” (Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, p. 174).
[10]  CW 8, par. 769.
[11]  CW 8, par. 772.
[12]  CW 8, par. 773.
[13]  CW 8, par. 776.
[14]  CW 8, par. 778.
[15]  CW 8, par. 800.
[16]  CW 8, par. 782.
[17]  CW 8, par. 783.
[18]  As in some other instances, Jung’s formulation here is quite archaic. Sharpness of mind is not egodystonic to women, whether young or old. Also, many a young man today need not wait till midlife to expose his tender feelings.
[19]  CW 8, par. 784.
[20]  CW 8, par. 792.
[21]  CW 8, par. 787.
[22]  CW 8, par. 789.


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