As we move through life, we experience moments when the game simply changes. Parents die, children leave home and we take on new responsibilities, or relinquish old ones. As we stare into the darkness of an unknown future, we may begin to suspect that we are unprepared for what lies ahead. We may slowly come to understand that the skills, habits and perspectives we have come to rely on, may no longer equip us to face the future. It may no longer be enough to simply keep polishing ourselves to be better or faster but we may instead need to consider an altogether new way of being.
There is an inevitability to this process, and yet we are constantly surprised when our stable and predictable lives are again thrown into flux as the solid base on which we stand begins to crumble. As Carl Jung suggested:
‘There is no change that is unconditionally valid over a long period of time. Life has always to be tackled anew…the constant flow of life again and again demands fresh adaption. (Jung 1957/1960 p142-3)
At these times, the established boundary between the conscious and unconscious begins to loosen. Prompted by meaningful dreams, sudden impulses or waking fantasies, we may feel torn between the two extremes of reality and possibility, as our conscious and unconscious minds compete for space and primacy.
The unthinkable may suddenly seem possible and with a swashbuckling but ill-considered flourish of ‘fuck it’, we imagine leaving the boring job, or the partner who doesn’t understand us, to find a new life where we can ‘live the dream’.
‘Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand as epitaph: he chucked up everything and just cleared off, And always the voice will sound certain you approve this audacious, purifying, elemental move.’ (Larkin, 1955)
Consumed by the energy and excitement of the unconscious we begin to ‘breathe our own smoke’, following our dreams until the moment comes when we discover that the problems of the old world are still with us. We realise that our new routine is no more satisfying than our old routine or that our new partner understands us even less than the previous model. As Larkin goes on to suggest, we may discover our inspired leap to have in fact been simply an artifice:
‘…Such a deliberate step backwards, to create an object…. A life reprehensibly perfect’. (Larkin, 1955)
Some of us of course may turn back before any steps are taken, unwilling or unable to leave the carefully constructed identities and social roles that have protected us. Desperately justifying our inaction, we deny the changes we face and supress the voice of our unconscious. We cling precariously to a well trodden path on a crumbling cliff face, hoping that the world will return to a more familiar form before we tumble into the unknown seas below.
However, with time and reflection, we may come to recognise a third way, where the factors shaping personality come together in a synthesis; a new form where conscious and unconscious ideas are neither rejected nor simply combined, but are recreated into a new and often unforeseen position or perspective.
Jung termed this realisation the ‘transcendent function’, a confrontation of conscious and unconscious which;
‘generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing – not a logical stillbirth…but…a living birth that leads to a new level of being. A new situation.’ (Jung, 1957/1960 p.189)
In this sense true development comes through sitting patiently with the heat and the tension that lies between our dreams and our reality. By neither accepting nor relinquishing either position we may allow something new to be born, which neither our dreams nor our rational self could imagine. It is central to the process of individuation and represents its ultimate goal.
Through the activation of the transcendent function, we can achieve a degree of stability between our conscious and unconscious minds, allowing a whole and integrated self to emerge. We can listen to our dreams without fleeing from them in terror or embracing them uncritically. We can find new ways to be in a changing world.
Jung, C.G. (1957/60). The Transcendent Function. In Read, H., Fordham, M., Adler, G., and McGuire, W. (eds.) The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Vol. 8 of 20 Volumes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Larkin, P. (1955) Poetry of Departures. In The Less Deceived. London: Marvell Press