Carl Jung And The Art of Aging Well

October 12, 2015


The late afternoon has always been my favorite time of day. So when I recently found a certain quote by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and founder of Analytical Psychology, it grabbed my attention. He said, "The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only, its meaning and purpose are different...." Intrigued I continued to read how Jung believed that the approximate time between ages 56 and 83 offer each of us the opportunity to make the process of aging a positive and life-enhancing experience. Regardless of whether we find ourselves only approaching that "afternoon" of life, or deep within it, the SMART perspective is to learn and stay conscious about what we can do to live an ongoing life of quality and purpose.

Dr. Carl Jung was known for seeing the mystical, metaphorical, archetypical and cyclical aspects of life and then teaching, writing and using them in practical and relevant ways for a meaningful experience. So it's no accident that as he aged he explored what that meant from those various viewpoints. Another quote that sums up his introspection states, "A human being would certainly not grow to be 70 or 80 years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life's morning." For Jung, the aging process was not one of inescapable decline of body, mind and relevancy, but instead a time of progressive refinement of what is essential.

In aid of that development was Jung's ongoing focus on self-awareness, individuation and wholeness. Jung said, "An ever-deepening self-awareness seems to me as probably essential for the continuation of a truly meaningful life in any age, no matter how uncomfortable this self-knowledge may be. Nothing is more ridiculous or unsuitable as older people who act as if they were still young -- they lose even their dignity, the only privilege of age. The watch must be the introspection. Everything is revealed in self-knowledge, what is it, what it is intended to, and about what and for what one lives. The wholeness of ourselves is certainly a rationale..." In other words, as we grow older we are all offered the opportunity to find meaning and purpose in becoming whole and wise. Perhaps instead of aging we could call it, "sage-ing."

This sounds logical, but unfortunately what we all too often witness in our culture is an obsession with youth, activity and productivity for as long as a person lives. That's why it is important to note that aging successfully is not always the same as aging consciously or well. Most of the time when talking about aging in Western cultures there is the implication that the "best" way to age is to do everything we can to continue doing what we've always done for as long as possible -- and to look equally young while doing it!

Author Lars Tornstam, in his book Gerotranscendence emphasizes the problem with that by saying, "...we sometimes erroneously project midlife values, activity patterns and expectations onto old age, and then define these values, patterns and expectations as successful aging. Maybe our projections are not just rooted in midlife, but also in western culture and white middle-class hopes for 'success' to continue into old age." When you think about it, what makes us think that we will be the same person with the same desires at 80 as we are at 50? And why would we want to be the same?

Like Jung, Tornstam instead believes that aging offers us the opportunity to redefine our self and relationships in order to arrive at a new understanding regarding fundamental existential questions about life. This possible natural progression towards maturation and wisdom is a stage he calls "Gerotranscendence." Tornstam explains that those who achieve this state often become, "...less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities." This time of life can offer us, "... an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decrease in superfluous social interaction." When a person strives for "gerotranscendence" he or she will likely be less interested in material things and crave "solitary meditation." And like Jung and his striving toward wholeness, Tornstam says, "There is also often a feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe and a redefinition of time, space, life and death."

But what happens if a person doesn't reach for wisdom, wholeness or gerotranscendence in elder years? Unfortunately, for those unable to respond to this new call for inner growth there is a tendency to experience depression, despair, fear of death and regret. Yet our western culture ignores that and continues to spread the idea that aging is best either denied or concealed, making it obvious that the biggest denial of all is the inevitability of death. And in spite of the goal of us all to hopefully avoid disease, disability, waning mental and physical functioning along with some disengagement with life, there will likely come a time when some, if not all, of those aspects become a part of our experience.

Ultimately it will come down to us answering these questions for ourselves: Does our continued existence at our increasing older age have value? Do we have something to contribute over and beyond just existing in a fairly well preserved body and mind, with enough resources to keep us reasonably happy, until it's over? Will we as elders have a purpose that can benefit the world and others, no matter how fit, able and active we are?

Jung addresses these questions by saying, "For the most part our old people try to compete with the young." He further illustrates the denial of older people to take on the role of wise elders by pointing out that most men instead strive to be a brother to his sons, while mothers hope to be the younger sister to their daughters. Rather than step eagerly into a stage of life where we dive deep into self-discovery and then mentor from wisdom, most of us hold on as tightly as possible to what we used to be, and continue thinking the way we used to think.

Instead of glorifying the roles we played in the "morning" of our lives, Jung recommends that we let go of what we were and optimistically welcome where we are and where we are going. He said, " old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it. And as a matter of fact, it is in many cases a question of the selfsame childish greediness, the same fear, the same defiance and willfulness, in the one as in the other."

One reason I've always enjoyed late afternoon is the beauty I see in the spreading shadows at that time of day. There is also a sense of fulfillment of the day's activities and the chance of reconnection with friends and family over food and camaraderie. Clearly different from the ever-increasing light of the morning or the bright midday sun, late afternoon offers us time to pause, reflect and be thankful before night falls. Maybe that is what Jung understood when he urged us to use the later part of our lives to become more whole by discovering who we are and wisely sharing it with others. And perhaps it is SMART for all of us at any age who want to age well to remember, as Carl Jung said, "The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are."

Kathy Gottberg believes in living healthy, authentic, fearless and SMART. This post originally appeared on her blog with a number of related comments. For similar topics go to SMART Living 365.