Make Life a Mythic Journey
I was recently asked to give a talk at a nearby retirement community where the median age is 80. Jung once said in The Stages of Life, “A human being would 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 significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning” (p. 399). Since Jung considered age 40 to 80 the second half of life, my host therefore suggested that I talk about “The Third Half of Life.” What would Jung have to say about this, I wondered?
Near the end of his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung wrote a chapter “On Life after Death,” in which he stated that “death is an important interest, especially to an aging person. A categorical question is being put to him, and he is under an obligation to answer it. To this end he ought to have a myth about death” (p. 306). But, Jung had just observed, “Unfortunately, the mythic side of man is given short shrift nowadays. He can no longer create fables. As a result, a great deal escapes him” (p.300). I wondered if this was true, and if it was just any myth that is required in the third half of life?
Jung only provides some clues. One concerns the belief in immortality where he claims that “for most people it means a great deal to assume that their lives will have an indefinite continuity beyond their present existence,” while immediately acknowledging, “There are people who feel no craving for immortality, and who shudder at the thought of sitting on a cloud and playing the harp for ten thousand years!” (p. 301). So, we are left dealing with the question of what myth encompasses this tension of opposites between immortality and the finality of life?
Jung further complicates the dilemma by noting in his Collected Works that “Among all my patients in the second half of life … there has not been one whose problem was not that of finding a religious outlook on life” (vol. 11, p. 334). But Jung’s own view of that “religious outlook” was quite different from his Christian roots. In his comments “On Life after Death” he added, “The world into which we enter after death will be grand and terrible, like God and like all of nature that we know” (p. 321).
We are thus now left asking what view or myth, if any, can contain all these seeming contradictions? Is there some “transcendent function,” a symbol like the Holy Grail, that can unite the conflict between immortality and mortality; the infinite and the finite; religion and agnosticism? To me, Jung is suggesting that this last stage of life, our “final frontier,” has a spiritual imperative or the need to find a spiritual connection to both one another and the mystery of the universe we are privileged to inhabit.
Pantheism or transcendence through a connectedness to nature and the cosmos where the physical laws of the universe represent the spiritual is one view that resolves the conflicts posed by Jung. He challenged us in concluding his thoughts “On Life after Death” (p. 325) by asking, “The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not?” The spirituality of pantheism provides one answer. It recognizes through the superordinate principle of tolerance that there are many paths to God and spirituality. We are temporal, finite creatures partaking through our consciousness in the eternal, infinite universe we inhabit. We are thus imbued with the compassionate connection to both one another and the infinite, whether or not you choose to call it a higher power or God.
And finally, in stark contradiction to Jung, we do have contemporary myths to guide us on our spiritual journey. They are made in Hollywood in classic films that capture the mythic aspects of Jung’s collective unconscious. Two such movies, in particular, demonstrate this with respect to the spiritual imperative of the third half of life—Defending Your Life and Field of Dreams. The former takes a Buddhist-like perspective on growth or individuation that continues beyond our earthly existence. The latter is a particularly American myth using baseball as a way of bringing spirituality as well as actual spirits into this world to perfect our lives and the lives of those who have departed. Both movies focus on the essence of pantheism in their emphasis on a loving, compassionate connection between a man and a woman in the former and a father and son in the latter.
Paul Marshall Wortman
January 13, 2013