Monday, February 14, 2011

Poking at the Giant Eyes of Ancient Gods

But up to now the moral law has been supposed to stand above our own likes and dislikes: one did not want to actually impose this law upon oneself, one wanted to take it from somewhere or discover it somewhere or have it commanded to one from somewhere.

- Nietzsche

In conversation with Shanna the other day, the topic of Carl Jung's work came up. I casually mentioned that I wasn't much of a fan of his (or of his follower Joseph Campbell). Impudent as always, she wanted to know what exactly I didn't like about him. Grumbling and grousing at having my authoritative pronouncements questioned, I named a few things. But while looking for a remembered citation on Wikipedia, I saw a brief paragraph that largely encapsulated my answer for me:

Jung's work on himself and his patients convinced him that life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goals. Our main task, he believed, is to discover and fulfill our deep innate potential, much as the acorn contains the potential to become the oak, or the caterpillar to become the butterfly. Based on his study of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Taoism, and other traditions, Jung perceived that this journey of transformation, which he called individuation, is at the mystical heart of all religions. It is a journey to meet the self and at the same time to meet the Divine. Unlike Sigmund Freud, Jung thought spiritual experience was essential to our well-being.

Achoo! *Sniff* Sorry, Plato's overpowering cologne always makes me sneeze.

I had an elderly neighbor once who constantly urged me to read Campbell, and when I did, I realized why she was always giving me a hard time for supposedly failing to fulfill my talent as a writer or musician. To her, I was being a petulant acorn. The Little Engine That Wouldn't. I had been given this gift, didn't I see, and I was being dishonest to myself and depriving the universal spirit of my contribution to the whole by refusing to see how much I could maximize my potential. I knew she meant well, but it was hard not to be offended by what struck me as a slightly arrogant position. Who exactly was she to tell me what I should be doing with my life? Just because she thought it was a "waste" to live a nondescript life in a small town with my girlfriend and her kid, it was now a universal edict? Did I get any say in what I wanted to make of my life and how I wanted to arrange the various components in order of importance? I didn't want to be a Hero; I just wanted to be a cipher, to live unseen and enjoy my ordinary life.

This is what I don't like about Jung, or Plato, or anybody who cares more about generalizations over particulars, composites over individuals. I don't understand this idea that the greatest thing, the ultimate achievement, is to submerge your identity in some oceanic whole. It makes me think I'm listening to moths rhapsodizing about the flame. I know that this limited perspective that we call our individual identity has no permanent, underlying essence to it, but I love it all the same.

And I don't understand this urge to shrug off the yoke of responsibility for what we do with our lives and seek to fall into some preordained pattern, some preexisting script, where we just have to show up and let destiny take care of the rest. Well, actually, I suppose I understand it, but I don't respect it. You're not in sole control of your life, of course, but you are in charge of deciding what constitutes living well, and doing your best to embody it.

There is no moral imperative here. Your life is yours to fulfill or waste as you see fit. Sometimes I think we act like we're driving cars with no brakes; we only ever stop mindlessly accelerating when we hit something. But not every dream is obligated to become a goal. Not every talent is destined to lead to riches and recognition. And abstention can be just as much evidence of wisdom and self-mastery as failure of nerve.