The secret of alchemy was in fact the transcendent function, the transformation of personality through the blending and fusion of the noble with the base components, of the differentiated with the inferior functions, of the conscious with the unconscious. Carl Jung, Vol. 7 of CW, par. 360.The
A friend and I have been discussing painful, life-changing experiences and what we’ve learned from them. Why do they happen? Why do they cause us and those we love so much suffering? Is there meaning in humanity’s endless suffering? The suffering of our planet? Can anything good come from it? Here are my thoughts on one of life’s biggest questions.
Jung said we have five instincts—nurturance, activity, reflection, sex, and creativity. Normally, we’re unaware of our instinctual needs, but at a deep unconscious level, our inability to fulfill them causes great suffering. The instinct for sex is associated with humanity’s desire for love and pleasure. These days, experiencing love and pleasure seems to be our top priority. Not finding it creates enormous suffering, which may be why we are so obsessed with sex. But our failure to satisfy the other instincts can also cause us to suffer.
A strong attraction to another person might initially appear to be about sex, but the love and pleasure you desire is not always or only sexual. Other instincts are also involved. You can find deep pleasure in loving yourself, others, and life. You can’t force love, and you won’t feel the real thing if your youthful need for safety, guidance, and reassurance aren’t met. So maybe there’s something about this person that involves your instinct for nurturance. Maybe your parents couldn’t give you what you needed and this fascinating person instinctively feels like someone who can.
Or maybe your attraction comes from an unfulfilled yearning to express your creative instinct. If you repressed your artistic interests in your youth because of cultural standards and pressures, your attraction to art and artists could be rooted in an unconscious desire to actualize your own creativity. Awakening that instinct will likewise provide access to untapped reservoirs of passion and pleasure.
Regardless of why you think you’re suffering or which instincts are involved, at bottom your pain is caused by your separation from your transcendent function—your true Self. What you don’t realize is that your ego’s conscious life is only the tip of your psychological iceberg. Beneath the water’s surface, you harbor memories of past experiences, forgotten thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and emotions. Deeper than that, the collective unconscious you share with every other human being contains myriad archetypes—each with different personality traits—and at least five different instincts—each with specific needs and urges. Like the inhabitants of the ocean’s depths, your unconscious entities interact with one another, and the alchemy of their interactions transforms you.
To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering, since you must become your own creator. Carl Jung, The Red Book, p. 249.
Facing dark inner realities is painful. From childhood you’ve unconsciously disowned traumatic experiences and memories. When they seep into your awareness, it can feel like a matter of life or death to ignore, escape, or rise above them. But anything you have repressed simmers in your unconscious where it can morph into a powerful shadow you can no longer contain. When this happens, like steam from a pressure cooker, your shadow can burst into your consciousness and instigate a personal crisis.
This is a shattering experience that can seriously mess with your life. But things will not necessarily stay this way forever. As my friend wisely wrote when we discussed these matters, “the trauma creates the roots for the drama that cannot be resolved without trauma.” Pure poetry. In fact, this scenario is typical of theHero’s Journey.
This is not just an imagined story. Myths are rooted in psycho-spiritual processes with transforming power. Like caterpillar whose body has to dissolve before it can morph into a beautiful new butterfly, your ego has to die to old habits and fears before your true Self can revel in the light of day.
With enough time and effort, you can acquire self-knowledge, love for yourself and others, and gratitude for the miracle of life. Even then, your suffering will not be over. Like the poor, our dragons will always be with us. But you will find comfort in the knowledge that you are taming yours and that your heroic accomplishments make a difference. In assuming the burden of your own suffering, you lighten the load carried by your loved ones, our planet, and every form of life.
Image credits: Alchemy, from Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (“The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology”).Google images. Butterfly, personal photo.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.