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Senior Circles: Jung's theories give meaning to an aging population

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When I was in college, many moons ago, I remember studying Carl Jung (1875-1961), a Swiss psychiatrist who was the founder of analytical psychology, in a cosmology class and again in a child development course. As a point of information, "Cosmology is the academic discipline that seeks to understand the origin, evolution, structure, and ultimate fate of the Universe at large, as well as the natural laws that keep it in order," according to Wikipedia. I have never been a fan of Jung ,but my friend Sara Walser is. So, when I received an announcement about a symposium on Jung and Aging at the Library of Congress scheduled for March 28, I passed the information to Sara. Since I wasn't able to attend the Jung event, I kept the topic in the back of my mind for a future column.

Sara Walser, soon to be age 70, holds a master's degree in guidance and counseling with a focus on education and a Doctor of Education in human development. She is retired from the federal government and has recreated herself in retirement as a coach/trainer on career transition topics, including retirement, individual and group career and executive coaching, and other human resource topics. Jung appeals to Sara because she says that most studies of human development cut off when the individual turns age 25, while Jung's theories discussed individuals at much later stages of life — after age 60 and beyond.

Sara did attend the symposium titled "Jung and Aging: Bringing to Life the Possibilities and Potentials for Vital Aging," and she shared the resulting information with me over lunch one day in late May.

Sponsored by the AARP Foundation, and hosted by the Library of Congress and the Jung Society of Washington, the symposium explored the work of Carl Gustav Jung and its meaning to an aging population. The Jung Society of Washington is a nonprofit educational membership society open to all who are interested in learning more about the psychology of Carl Jung.

Jung offers a positive, life-enhancing approach to aging in which psychological and spiritual development is possible across the life span. People in the second half of life can work toward the possibility of continuing creativity and fulfillment, and a deepening of spirituality. The key is to turn inward during the second half of life. It is a journey of self-exploration and inner discovery that Jung called "individuation," which is the central concept of analytical psychology. We can discover and build on our inner life, opening ourselves up to new ideas and experiences, continuing to grow and learn as we age, leading to a new sense of meaning and purpose in our life. This process of looking inward can open us to new ways of thinking about ourselves, our identities and the past and lead to the formation of new values and goals that can bring vitality and energy to our lives as we age. We can be open to conscious grieving and let go of goals that we did not achieve earlier in life. We can refocus our energy on those things that we can still achieve during the second half of life.

Understanding ourselves better can help us to better understand and relate to others. This self-understanding also gives us the tools to maintain our self-esteem as we age. By identifying and taking advantage of aging's opportunities and advantages, we can learn to counter the deficits and challenges of aging. "A greater depth of self-understanding also will help those of us who are aging to better tolerate the ambiguity and paradoxes of aging, and affirm the value of life in the face of good and evil, pain and joy, and the other oppositions that mark our existence."

In discussing "The Stages of Life," Jung said, "For the ageing person it is a duty and a necessity to devote serious attention to himself." He also wrote, "The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot merely be a pitiful appendage to life's morning." If we have a deeper understanding of ourselves during the second half of life, we can be free to explore new family, social and community roles. We can also get in touch with those parts of us that we ignored or put aside during the first half of life – notably one's feminine or masculine side, a personality type that languished, or a personal destiny that was never realized.

Jung often describes the first part of life as the "morning life" and the second half of life as "its afternoon." He proffers that there is a different psychology for each of these stages of life. Jung's view was that the second half of life must not be governed by the principles of the first half of life; that the afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning, only its meaning and purpose are different.

"Active imagination" is one of the practical tools that Jung offers to help us tap into the power of our creativity in the second half of life. According to Wikipedia, Jung's "Active imagination is a meditation technique wherein the contents of one's unconscious are translated into images, narrative or personified as separate entities." Our power of creativity can help us "explore and bring to life" our unused potential, remain connected to and engaged in our communities, and live with a sense of purpose and meaning that validates our existence.

One of the things I didn't know about Jung is that the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory was principally developed from Jung's theories on psychological types. According to the Myers-Briggs Foundation home page, "The purpose of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality inventory is to make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people's lives. The essence of the theory is that much seemingly random variation in the behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment. I took the Myers-Briggs several times during my career as a manager and put it to good use in determining the best way to communicate with not only my bosses but also those who worked for me.

Do you know older adults who prefer to be "hypochondriacs, curmudgeons, applauders of the past or eternal adolescents?" If you don't want to be one of these types of 'agers,' commit yourself to lifelong learning, connecting with others and your community, exploring your inner self, having fun, being resilient and adapting to change. Don't give up, go on living!

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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