Archive for February, 2021

Jungian Psychotherapy – University For Forty-Year-Olds

February 10th, 2021

A few years ago, a Harvard university committee developed a mission statement reflecting on the purpose and aims of a liberal education.

They included the necessity to:

De-familiarize the familiar,
Reveal what is going on behind appearances
Disorient young people even while helping them to re-orient themselves.
This philosophy proposes a way of life in which individuals would be skeptical of the status quo, examine the culture in which they were raised and discover their own values.

These proposals are of course very much in line with the highly individualistic values of North American and Western culture in general.

They appeal, as well, to the young persons appropriate wish to develop personal autonomy and self-identity by dis-identifying with their parents’ institutions. Without guidance, young people may indeed have a hard time seeing how they too swim in a sea of cultural, or even counter-cultural, institutions that structure their expectations… even those ideas they naively experience as the most personal of their desires and ideals. There is certainly work to do in helping them to seek self-expressive value choices and to avoid the worst effects of blind excess; but if their education stops there, as it too often does, that is a shame.

Initiations: In other cultures and other times, the entry into and the passage through appropriate institutions was guided and mediated by formal rites of passage.

In order to attain the privileges of adult membership in the culture and the rights and privileges like marriage which were real and concrete, individuals had to submit to a particular education and series of tests, some of which righteously built character, and some of which were admittedly, objectionable “ploys” by the cultural elite to maintain their status. In our time, many of these cultural and religious institutions have become devalued and impotent and for many of us, the last bastions of formal, structured training and initiation lie in structured education such as university programs and professional qualifications. As for marriage, civic responsibility and moral codes… we are largely left to our own devices.

Psychological theorist Carl Jung suggested that it was the appropriate developmental task of young adulthood to insert oneself into ones culture.

He endorsed the necessity to learn what the culture, and the institutions of the culture, would teach and make possible through education, training, mentoring, apprenticeship, etc. and thence, to build a life, find a mate, raise ones children and otherwise profit from, and contribute to, the human culture into which one is born.

He lamented, however, that there were no “universities for forty-year-olds”, wherein mature adults could get the message that Harvard is proposing to its young people. He believed that at mid- life, from a position of having mastered life’s demands, it was healthy and necessary for the individual to develop a personal perspective on their institution and culture, accepting and rejecting aspects of it in full knowledge of what those choices meant. He called this process “individuation”.

Ideally it is the influence of “elder statesmen” or institutional leadership in our culture which should drive the healthy, organic adjustment of institutions. The problem, which is intuitively recognized, and perhaps rightly feared, by young people contemplating putting themselves under the yoke of an institution or training program, is exactly that individuals do become personally identified with their role and unquestioningly ossified in their cultural positions.

May individuals arrive at a point in mid-life where there is a natural and age-appropriate breakdown of previous identifications and a break-through of individual values and aspirations.

Unfortunately we do not have, as a culture, a validated and supported program for traversing this mid-life crisis and too often the individuals who arrive at this developmental transition point find themselves largely alone, misunderstood and with few guideposts for how to proceed. For those who feel compelled to make changes, the process of de-familiarizing the familiar, and discovering what is going on behind appearances can be very emotionally and psychologically disorienting, but the experience of re-orienting themselves offers the possibility of profound renewal and depth of understanding when it takes place in the matrix of mature life experience.

Individuals making this healthy transition often turn to Jungian psychotherapy or analysis to work through their questions and experiences in a thoughtful and supportive environment.

Perhaps that’s why evolution gave us the “mid-life crisis”?

We need the stability and reservoirs of knowledge and expertise that cultural institutions maintain for us, but perhaps, in contradistinction to Harvard’s liberal arts “credo” we need their solidifying aspect most while we are young and untried… and their opportunities for renewal more when we are older. It really is too bad that there is no systematic structure of “universities for forty-year-olds” where mature contributions could be validated and personal growth beyond initial institutional and cultural identities would be fostered.

Adults who literally go back to university at forty often find it an uphill battle, both in how the university culture is structured and in how their aspirations are received by their friends and families.

Return to university as an older person is often a deeply meaningful act, which, since it is often difficult, and physically, emotionally and financially costly, may take the place of a self-chosen “initiatory trial” and which helps create the new character needed for the second half of life. The effort invested in this mid-life self-dedication to a set of personal values and aspirations is often experienced as deeply and satisfyingly self-expressive and contributes to a psychologically healthy life which is felt to be imbued with meaning and purpose.