“Man cannot stand a meaningless life”

This is the answer the renown and revered psychologist Carl Gustav Jung gave to the final question posed to him by the British interviewer, John Freeman, in 1959.

I offer here my transcript of the final nine minutes of the Youtube video of the interview. I have added a few [clarifying words] and have indicated where the audio was unclear.

Carl Gustav Jung

Jung: … [regarding current dreams of war] We are so full of apprehensions, fears, that one doesn’t know exactly to what it [the dreams] points. One thing is sure: a great change of our psychological attitude is imminent. That is certain.

Freeman:  But why?

Jung: … because we need more understanding of human nature because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man, far too little. His psyche should be studied because we are the origin of all coming evil.

Freeman: well, does man, do you think, need to have the concept of good and evil to live with; is it part of our nature?

Jung: Well, obviously.

Freeman: … and of a redeemer? Does man, do you think, need to have the concept of sin and evil to live with, is this part of our nature?

Jung: That is an inevitable consequence.

Freeman: This is not a concept which will disappear as we become more rational, it’s something…

Jung: Well, I don’t believe that man ever will deviate from the original pattern of his being. There will always be such ideas. For instance, if you do not directly believe is a personal redeemer, as it was in the case with Hitler, or the hero worship in Russia, then it is an idea, it is a symbolic idea.Freeman: You have written… sentences which have surprised me a little bit about death. In particular, I remember you said that death is psychologically just as important as birth, like it’s an integral part of life, but surely it can’t be like it’s an end.

Jung: Yes, if it’s an end, and there we are not quite certain about this and because, you know, there are these peculiar faculties of the psyche that, it isn’t entirely confined to space and time. You can have dreams or visions of the future; you can see around corners; and, such things only ignorance in denies these facts. You know, it’s quite evident that they do exist and have existed always. Now, these facts show that the psyche, in part at least, is not dependent upon these confinements. And then what? When the psyche is not under that obligation to live in time and space alone, and obviously it doesn’t, then to that extent the psyche is not separated to (sic) those walls and that means a practical continuation of life, of a sort of psychical existence beyond time and space.

Freeman: Do you, yourself, believe that death is probably the end, or do you believe…

Jung: (Interrupts, thinks out loud, briefly, for the right response) … well I, you can’t say… you see the word ‘belief’ is a difficult, difficult, thing for me. I don’t believe; I must have a reason for certain hypotheses. Either I know a thing and then I know it; I don’t need to believe it. If I… I don’t allow myself, for instance, to believe a thing a thing just for the sake of believing it. I can’t believe it! But, when there are sufficient reasons to form a certain hypothesis, I shall accept. [unclear] issues naturally, as you say, we have to reckon with the possibility of so-and-so, you know.

Freeman: You told us that we should regard death as being a [unclear] illusion, that the [unclear] away from it is to evade life (Jung: yes) what advice would you give to people in their later life to do this when most of them must, in fact, believe that death is the end of their movie?

Jung: Well. You see, I have treated many old people and it’s quite interesting to watch what the unconscious is doing with the fact that it is apparently threatened with a complete end. It disregards it!  Life behaves as if it was going on. And so, I think it is better for old people to live on, to look forward to the next day as if he had to spend centuries. And then he lives properly. But when he is afraid, when he doesn’t look forward, or that he looks back he petrifies, he gets stiffened, he dies before his time. But when he is living on, looking forward to the great adventure that is ahead, then he lives. And that is what the unconscious is intending to do, Of course, it’s quite obvious that we are all going to die and this is the sad finale of everything, but nevertheless there is something in us that doesn’t believe it, apparently, but this is merely a factor as I (struggles for a phrase) does it mean to me that it proves something? It is simply so. For instance, I may not know why we need salt, but we prefer to eat salt because you feel better. And so, when you think in a certain way you may feel considerably better. And if, I think, you think along the lines of nature then you think properly.

Freeman: And this leads me to the last question that I want to ask you. As the world become more technically efficient it seems increasingly necessary for people to behave communally and collectively. Now do you think it’s possible that the highest development of man may be to submerge his own individuality in a kind of collective consciousness?

Jung: That’s hardly possible. I think there will be a reaction. The reaction will setting (sic) against this communal dissociation. You know, man doesn’t stand forever his nullification. (At some time) there will be a reaction and I see it setting in. You know, when I think of my patients, they all seek their own existence, and to assure their existence against that complete atomization into nothingness or into meaninglessness. Man cannot stand a meaningless life.

I recommend the reading of Jung’s autobiography: Memories, Dreams, Reflections


 

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“Youth and Old Age are Two Separate Kingdoms”

Richard Zimler

The quote is from the bottom of page 71 of “The Gospel According to Lazarus,” by Richard Zimler.

This statement struck me with enough power to make me stop reading. Why? I can only use more words.

I am in my 83rd year on earth. I am old, but I have been young. In the last few decades I have learned that an old person cannot teach a younger person except, possibly, by example—assuming the younger one is actively watching at all.

I certainly do learn, or rather re-learn, by watching even the youngest of us, currently my wife’s first grandchild. By observing him I am reminded of the vital forces contained in everyone; it is invigorating to engage with a new, whole, completely unrestrained human being who happens to be much smaller and temporarily physically dependent.

But this palaver delays my expressing the immediate perception I had upon reading the phrase: yes, we are in separate kingdoms, each with its desires and objectives.

Those younger than I cannot know what I have learned and value, if they have not yet had similar experiences. Memo to self: avoid negative feelings if the young are  inattentive, even dismissive of my offerings. Corollary: don’t offer unless asked.

Conversely, I know what it is to be young, if I have not allowed myself to forget, and, therefore, should be understanding and, if necessary, forgiving, even generous. My father had a saying which I heard often: “youth will be served.”

In the event that younger people may have read this far, I offer more words, to show an important aspect of being old. This is from another novel, “Death Comes to the Archbishop, by Willa Cather:”

Sometimes, when Magdalena or Bernard came in and asked him a question, it took him several seconds to bring himself back to the present.  He could see they thought his mind was failing; but it was only extraordinarily active in some other part of the great picture of his life–some part of which they knew nothing.

Time with a Cat (a haibun)

I was yielding to the insidious tendency to dwell on my advancing age, as it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the reminders of my deteriorating appearance and function. The inevitable end was quite clear, only the timing and manner remained hidden. It was tedious to “count one’s blessings” rotely, as a palliative to this recurrent ennui. There was only one thing to do: take a walk.

Not a long walk on a short pier, as I heard the saying in Brooklyn so many years ago, but a walk in the fresh air along an arm of Stockholm’s big lake Mälaren, despite the day being overcast and somewhat windy.

There was no new life to celebrate: the grasses, bushes and trees had spent their flowers, the birds were well over the nesting period and the lake’s edges were cluttered with the detritus of careless humans and the decay of the lake’s biota. I had no direction to go in, so I sat on a bench facing the lake.

I brought no book or writing material. I needed to be intellectually naked, to be open to the fates, unprepared for evaluating and rationalizing.

One of the neighborhood cats wandered by, the sleek gray one. It looked briefly at me, sniffed at a few nearby plants, and then gracefully jumped onto the bench. It sat near me and gave itself a few licks and scratches as it faced the sun with me. I remained passive but observant.

It stretched a wonderful cat stretch, walked the few steps between us, slowly and confidently, then sat in my lap. I am no stranger to cats; I immediately assumed the role required of me. I petted and stroked and scratched the cat exactly where and how he or she needed, and we were bonded for a short but timeless period.

The warmth and the feel of the cat were familiar to me. Visions of my youth, when I lived with cats, flowed over and through me. I remembered my parents and sister, especially, and then my children and a former mate. These memories morphed into others, just as a dream progresses. I felt as if I carried a great museum of memories inside me, but it didn’t seem as burdensome as it sometimes does. Perhaps I dozed a bit.

The cat eventually had enough of what I was offering, unwound itself from my lap, walked over the bench a short way and dropped to the ground without a backward glance. The communion was over. I went to the supermarket to buy groceries, and then back home to perform household chores.

the weight of the world
grows heavy with time
but not with a cat


Definition of Haibun

Nothing New Under the Sun

When one is old, as I am, one learns to remain silent on certain things, except when in the company of close friends of a similar age.

One’s physical complaints, of course, are never to be mentioned, or only in a mildly joking manner. One often lives with constant pain, certainly with discomfort, in one or more joints or sinews, or perhaps in an organ or two, most of the time masked by one’s wonderful brain which commands, “carry on.”

An old person’s musings about: “yes, that also happened to me when I was younger, and this is what I learned…” evokes glassy eyes and body language signaling a yearning for escape. And, of course, the younger ones are right: experience is the master teacher, along with pain and suffering.

Recently, I have been musing, mostly silently to be sure, about the vast store of knowledge and experience I have accumulated and remember during the four score years since before the United States entered World War Two.

I met a man a few evenings ago, the husband of a writing colleague—a charming, engaging, and accomplished fellow. Our conversation was wide-ranging, chronologically, geographically, and philosophically, a real treat for me (and my poor hearing required my interlocutor to work hard for me to understand him in the noisy room). At one point in the conversation, he realized that I was much older than I originally appeared to him (a family trait) and interjected to remark that I must have been present or aware of certain well-known historical events. Yes, I was, and briefly gave details of a few.

This pleasant experience remains with me to savor for a while. But the rarity of such an experience reminds me that I and my cohort have knowledge, or at least information, largely untapped, which will expire with us.

I feel that the main motivation for my writing is to leave a record, necessarily incomplete, of what I have seen and learned, at least as interpreted through my biases and prejudices.

I remind myself of “The Diary of Samuel Pepys,” which was more fully appreciated by later generations and stands currently as a valuable historical document.

My musings observations are not as important as those of Pepys, but I fancy (the word is based in the concept of fantasy) that there will be at least some minor value, perhaps entertainment, to people in later generations if they are made generally available (which, thanks to the Internet, already are). In addition, if they survive and are made available after I achieve room temperature, I have retained decades of correspondence with friends and family, both in digital and hard copy form. (Oh, yes, I am obsessive about certain things).

How full of myself I am to think, or at least hope, that my scribblings have and will retain value. As the wisdom contained in the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us:

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Scholars may learn from history, but it seems the rest of us do not. My father tried to impart to me what he had learned, which was much, and I did listen and record what he said. Nonetheless, I had to live a full life, making my mistakes, to fully understand what he was trying to help me learn and avoid in life.

Thanks for trying, Dad.

Me ‘n’ Dad

Feeling Old

From my notes on July 7, 2016, while on holiday in Bad Gastein, Austria

I am feeling old today:

  • The knees are going
  • Short-term memory lapses
  • Irritability over minor inconveniences
  • Despair over the decline in culture

On the other hand:

  • A feeling of comradeship with people my age
  • An appreciation of the connectedness of all things
  • The acceptance of minor miracles as part of everyday life (e.g., Jung’s synchronicity)
  • Birdsong, flowers, trees
  • The immensity of the Earth

How Old Are You Granddad?

Waiting at the bus stop, my six year old grandson was talking about his favourite sports just as he would with another six year old. We were on our way to Thursday’s football practice – his.

“What’s your favourite sport granddad?”

“Do you mean to watch or to play?” I asked.

“Both I suppose. My favourite to play is indoor hockey, and to watch either swimming or football. What are yours?”

“To play it’s rugby, then I like watching basketball” I said.

“Rugby?”

“You play with a ball like an egg” I said, drawing a rugby ball in the air.

“Is that like American football?”

“More or less, almost the same” I said, nodding and raising my eyebrows like Groucho Marx to show I was impressed.

We were early for practice, so we did some passing and dribbling to warm up. He collected the ball from halfway across the pitch, after one of my badly skewed passes. After almost half an hour in the afternoon sun I was sweating profusely. His cheeks were blossoming, but otherwise he seemed unaffected.

He stood there holding the ball and looked straight into my eyes in that innocent way of his, head on one side and squinting against the sun. “How old are you granddad?” he asked, right out of the blue. “Seventy”, I said. He didn’t react, just nodded slowly, tucked the ball under his arm and backed off so that we could carry on with our passing game.

A simple question opened up a generation gap between us, a gap that had not been there before. Later I wondered what had prompted his question. And what he thought of my answer.

Most likely he was looking for an explanation for my poor performance  – “Granddad is really hopeless at passing a football. OK – that’s because he is old and tired, but he’ll do if there’s no one else around.”

A more (for me) flattering explanation could be that he was impressed by my fitness, enthusiasm and prowess with a football and thought perhaps I was younger than I looked with my balding head and white hair. Or maybe he thought, “you’re not that old, only seventy, now it’s your turn to fetch the ball”.

(A week or so later we were sitting in the park eating ice cream. He was at home with a cough, I was keeping him company. I asked why he wanted to know how old I was. With a wide smile he confirmed my worst fears – I was past it as a football player.)

I joined the football (soccer) mums sitting at the side of the pitch, ostensibly watching their sons going through their training programme.  In fact they were involved in an intense heated discussion about the new city rules for placement of six year olds in schools next autumn. After almost half an hour of listening to their views I felt exhausted. But not our soccer mums. They turned to the merits of living in the asphalt city with small children contra the option of buying a house in the leafy suburbs.

I tried to interest them in the football training which was taking place under their very noses, but to no avail. Their thoughts were elsewhere: what to put on the table for dinner, how to get for sitters or grandparents to look after the kids at the weekend, conflicts at work, and the rest.

Another age gap opened up, like cracks in a road after an earthquake.

Afterwards we took a short cut through the park to reach our bus stop, passing a large old apple tree in full bloom.

“What kind of tree is that” I asked grandson, trying to interest him in nature.

“No idea” he said, disinterested.

“It’s an apple tree.” His favourite fruit.

“How do you know that?”

“I saw some people picking apples from it last autumn.” I said.

“Can you still remember things from last year?”

“Of course, I walk past here quite often.”

He looked confused, probably thought it was another peculiarity about 70 year olds.

On the bus home he preferred to sit with a couple of his teammates, waving and pulling faces at the driver of the bus behind us in the traffic jam. She responded by waving her wipers and flashing her headlights. My role was reduced to bag man and general dogsbody.

At home, grandma and little sister, three years old, were sitting on the settee looking at old family photos, waiting for the potatoes to boil. “Who’s that?” asked grandma, showing her a picture of two girls standing next to a large brown pony in the stables. They were about twelve and eight years old. Little sister looked puzzled, and so did big brother when grandma showed him the photo.

“This is your Mummy and her sister when they were little girls”, explained grandma.  “No way” said the six year old, while the three year old preferred children’s TV. Grandma tried to arouse interest in more photos of their Mummy as a young girl, but to no avail. The idea that their Mummy had a life before she was their mother was completely alien to them. The kids seemed disturbed by the idea that their Mummy had once been young like themselves. I tried again: “Where do you think those girls went to, where are they now?” No answer. Grandma and I gave up and set about fixing dinner.

Interest in family history and delving into the lives of previous generations is something that comes late in life, often when people have more life behind them than in front of them. “Oh, I should have asked Aunt Mary or Grandma Perkins about this when they were still alive!” is a common reaction after hitting a stone wall in their genealogical endeavours. Another common sign of interest in the past are the rows of biographies and historical novels which dominate the bookcases – if not the reading – of older people.

Are they trying to cling to the past, a past which has long since disappeared into the mists of time? And where does the past go to? Who stores the events of yesterday and yesteryear? Or does the past just disappear into a black hole, sucked from our memories as we desperately try to cling onto what we have lived? Why do old people try to remember the past, with failing memory, while young people’s hippocampus is set by default to “full steam ahead”? Is it simply that for old people with little future, the past is more interesting and there is more of it, while for younger people it is the opposite?

–Eric Gandy, Kista, Sweden

 

Being Old

I welcomed my 75th birthday, early in 2012, because I felt it settled the question of whether I was yet “old”. The answer was, and is, Yes!

According to the life expectancy table for year 1937, I could then reasonably have expected to live to age 58. I’ve already got a bonus of 17 years.

Upon achieving age 76 on January 7, 2013 I can reasonably expect to live another 10 years, according to this statistical table from the Social Security Administration. In that I changed my residence from the USA to Sweden 10 years ago, to be with Eva, my Swedish wife, I could possibly add a few more years to that expectation.

Now, people I meet don’t have to dance around saying “old” in front of me. I let ’em know, when appropriate, that I am, indeed, old and happy to be so. After all, consider the alternative.