On Growing-Up

‘The expectation’ for ‘help and protection’, writes Carl Jung in The Structures and Dynamics of the Psyche, while ‘normal for a child is improper in an adult’. In Psychology and the Occult he makes a similar point, remarking not being able to psychologically mature is just as absurd as not being able to outgrow child-size shoes. We must, in order to be healthy and well-adjusted individuals, learn to grow up. And this means, among many things, learning to take our life in our own hands.

But many of us still allow others to dictate to us what is right, what we must do, and how we should live. We exist in a state of existential childhood, where although our parents may have retreated as figures in our physical life, the fundamental relationship that characterised childhood (submission to authority, acquiescence, and obedience) still exists.

To be an individual, writes Thomas Mann in his work The Magic Mountain, ‘one had to recognise the difference between morality and blessedness’.

The moral man decides for himself what is right or wrong. He lives according to his own standards and monitors his conduct according to personal beliefs. The blessed man, however, is what Mann, echoing Jung, calls a ‘child of God’. He does not think about what is right, just, or worthy, but accepts these as givens by those around him. He does not think for himself but allows others to do his thinking for him. John Ralston Saul, in Voltaire’s Bastards writes,

A man who depends upon blessedness is one who relies upon God and his representatives to define morality and to enforce it. He is a child of God — a ward who would not dream of claiming personal responsibility. The individual is more like a child who has grown up and left home. More dramatically put, man killed God in order to replace him. Either that or, having killed God, man was obliged to fill the resulting void. In either case he assumed the powers of moral judgment previously limited to divinities.

The voracious consumer who chases commodities because he is told these will make him happy, the obedient convert who believes unflinchingly in the 10 commandments because his priest has convinced him of hell, the pupil who behaves as the master instructs because he is lost and the master provides answers; they are all Mann’s ‘blessed’ children of God; having given up the task of deciding for themselves how to live, they have granted this responsibility to someone else.

Mann and Jung argue (in different ways) that by taking life into our own hands, we cease being reflections of others and grow into ourselves. We become individuals.

It is unlike the individualism understood by our society, which is often of a tawdry or superficial kind. Imagine a surgeon. He lives in a luxury city apartment. He drives an expensive car, likely a German import. On his skin are the finest fabrics, on his tongue talk of the finest wines, on his bed the finest linen. He studied and worked hard in order to have a life where he could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and spend the weekends at his country house with his wife and children. The surgeon has rank, title, power and prestige and these, he thinks, makes him who he is. But, he has never questioned whether wealth or power is the correct path. He has not asked whether rank and title are statements about him or simply titles conferred by society. Nor has he asked that after the houses and cars and holidays, ‘what the point of it all?’. Society has told him how he should live, what he should value, and he has accepted it. In this way, the surgeon is not an individual at all, but ‘‘blessed’.

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787

Many of us have failed to assume responsibility for ourselves and instead, allow others to do it on our behalf. A ‘master’ will tell us how to live, a holy book will instruct us on what is right and wrong, social organisation will inform us on what work is valuable or not. In childhood we may unthinkingly accept the prescriptions of others, but being an adult means taking your life into your own hands and deciding for yourself questions like ‘is this right?’ and ‘is this what I want to do?’. The distinction between morality and blessedness is exactly what Nietzsche was trying to capture in his distinction between ‘master and slave morality’.

To the extent that we submit to the values, goals, and ethics of others, we become what Krishnamurti refers to as ‘second hand people’. What makes neurosis so dangerous and also so prevalent is how the authority of friends, family, authors and institutions becomes internalised and thus, invisible. Because we have not interrogated ourselves, we do not see how little of our thoughts, beliefs, values and morals are our own. To grow up, to become an individual, therefore, requires us, for perhaps the first time in our lives, to investigate ourselves and discover what we value, believe, and want. It can be an incredibly tumultuous experience, as well as lonely one. The road to personal truth is a path fit for one.

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