On Living & Dying
‘The psychological curve of life’, writes Carl Jung in The Soul and Death, often fails to conform to the natural curve of our biological development. Acting like it is morning when it is midday, ‘we straggle behind our years, hugging our childhood as if we could not tear ourselves away’. He notes,
We stop the hands of the clock and imagine that time will stand still.
But this is an illusion because time stops for nobody. As we desperately cling to the past for its security and reassurances, life pushes forward inexorably, bringing us with it. Not us living life so much as life living us. When we live in the past, the psychological and biological curves separate, and out of that arises neurosis.
The fear of life, Jung observed, is just as prevalent and damaging as the fear of death. The fear of life afflicting the young; the fear of death, the old. The young are often reluctant to jump in the deep end, take risks and try new things; fearing what might happen. The old are often reluctant to acknowledge ‘how far the hand of the clock has moved forward’ and fear the subtracting years, choosing instead to live in their memories.
We can imagine life as the ascent and descent of a mountain. On the way up, we cling to each rock as we climb. We want to stay put, to be safe and secure on our perch. We are scared of falling off, or do not trust ourselves to make it to the top. When we arrive at the summit, Jung’s ‘midday of life’, we hesitate descending back to base. But the body will descend whether the mind wants to or not. Climbing down, we spend our time looking backwards, focusing on the summit we once stood upon, rather than facing forward.
When after some delay we finally reach the summit, there again, psychologically, we settle down to rest, and although we can see ourselves sliding down the other side, we cling, if only with longing backward glances, to the peak once attained
Fear of life held us back on the upward slope, but just because of this delay we claim all the more right to hold fast to the summit we have now reached.
Despite our resistance, we must climb the mountain and once again, no matter how much we resist, we must descend. Life reasserts itself. By failing to accept this face, we lose our psychological footing. ‘Consciousness stays up in the air, while the curve of the parabola sinks downward with ever-increasing speed’.
To borrow the everyday phrase, we must ‘go with the flow’. Not that we could do anything different anyway. The only difference is between letting the current pull you along or swimming with it. Jung writes,
From the middle of life onward, only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life. For in the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. The negation of life’s fulfilment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Waxing and waning make one curve.
In his brilliant essay Walking On The Wheel, Alan Watts echoes Jung,
Consider life as a revolving wheel set upright with man walking on its tire. As he walks, the wheel is revolving toward him beneath his feet, and if he is not to be carried backward by it and flung to the ground he must walk at the same speed as the wheel turns. If he exceeds that speed, he will topple forward and slip off the wheel onto his face. For at every moment we stand, as it were, on the top of a wheel; immediately, we try to cling to that moment, to that particular point of the wheel, it is no longer at the top and we are off balance.
We must keep pace with the turning of the wheel which is life and death. Holding on will do us no good. The paradox is that by trying to seize the moment, we lose it and fall off, but by not seizing it, we keep it.
Jung’s psychology and Watts’ philosophy communicate the same message: we must keep moving with life; not that we have a choice, the wheel turns, nonetheless. It is only a matter of deciding whether we shall embrace the ascent and descent, or spend our time clinging on our way up and looking backwards on our way down. Watch your step.