like the sun…

East of the Sun, West of the Moon © 1913 Kay Nielsen

East of the Sun, West of the Moon © 1913 Kay Nielsen

Carl Jung compared a human life to a single day, in which we are the sun rising, reaching to the heights, then slipping down to night. Today I am 51, and this image strikes me again now, as it did the first time I read about it. Jung maintained that the first half of life, for all its confusion and dissonance, is relatively easy, as, like the sun, we rise ever higher, casting our light over ever greater reaches, seeing ever further. Eventually we reach our midday, the midpoint of life. When this occurs varies, it seems to me: I am not sure if someone who dies in their 20s achieves their midlife in their teens. I suspect not. I suspect that this is like the sun being snuffed out mid-morning – a powerful metaphor for the shock of early death: psychically, a wrenching insult against the ‘proper way of things’. What is more problematical is whether, in any place or time where most people die at 40 (say), midlife is reached at 20 – I suspect so – that we map our lives, subconsciously, to the time we think we have. This leads naturally to how this perception changes when considering lives, like many lived today, in which people expect to live longer than their parents. I wonder indeed if this indistinct, slipping end point may not be part of the reason for some of our confusion about death. Not that that seems to me likely to be the main reason for such confusion; this surely has to do with the obsession we have with the morning of our lives – with youth. For what is this other than an obsession with keeping our gaze fixed on where we came from, rather than on where we are going?

Jung said that the secret to life is not the morning, but rather the afternoon. For it is then that our sun begins to descend to its ultimate quenching. Jung talked about a process he terms ‘individuation’ – that is the setting right of those things within us that are in disorder. Analogous, perhaps, to the feeling people often have who know they are soon to die of wanting to put their affairs in order. Certainly, by the end, we lose everything: literally everything. But it is not as if we reach our sunset carrying everything we have accumulated in life. Much of what we have had we will have lost: family, friends, our vigour, our hair, our teeth. But also, if we are wise: our fear, our confusions, our lusts, our greed, our gluttonies. Perhaps also, admittedly, our hope is lost (for I have no belief in an afterlife). Looking back to youth, an ever harder thing to do with failing sight and memory, is surely to get it all wrong? When moving forwards, looking back must be wrong. Worse, like any threat, death is more terrifying if you turn your back on it.

So, I am 51 today, and very happy to be so, happy to be in the afternoon of my life. Happy to accept that I no longer can find the right words in conversation, and that I forget all kinds of things all the time. My hair is performing a disappearing trick and many of my appetites have diminished. But I am more present than I have ever been – and that makes me see reality a little more clearly, and the time I have left moves more slowly. I am more at peace with myself. I value silence more, solitude, but also other people. I am more tolerant of my faults and failings, and thus those of others. I worry for the world, but do not feel any longer it is somehow all my responsibility. I do what I can. Most of all I advance, a step at a time, enjoying the view, trying to face in the direction I’m going…

4 thoughts on “like the sun…

  1. If you have many suns ahead of you though, somehow, you will always feel you are merely rising. :P My friends have always had crises – 20s, 25s, 30s…and as a result of seeing so many crises before I’ve hit what should be mine, I subsequently feel like I am happy to have hit a milestone…it feels like being last in a race up a mountain, so it is nice to finally see what the view is like at each successive stage after others have talked so long about it. And since others have spoken about it beforehand, the mystery is gone and it becomes more soothing.

    On the other hand though, one can feel far past mid-day regardless of age years. While there is often a correlation between age-years and feeling of age, the two are hardly one and the same, and I feel that gap is often neglected.

    1. I don’t know if I would say that “you will always feel you are merely rising” – what I would say is that if you do believe you have many suns ahead of you, then death is also likely to look far away, and thus there’s no reason to think about it. I still think that at some point in middle age you can’t help but notice that you are physically ‘diminishing’ – and it is this, not the number of suns left to you, that indicates that you’re on the downward slope…

      As for it being soothing to walk in other people’s footsteps: it seems to me that that used to be the way of things – that when our world was changing very slowly, if at all, the old would absolutely have experienced everything that the young were going through and could thus act as guides. Is it surprising that this is no longer the case, given that what the young experience bears little relation to what their elders knew? (I am, of course, being simplistic here: there is a difference between practical experience of the world and those experiences that lead to ‘wisdom’). As you suggest, it the lack of suitable guides that leads to anxiety and crisis…

      In my experience, the gap you talk about, between age-years and feeling of age, resulted from my having unresolved issues in earlier life, and there was a tendency to remain tethered to that age until I had resolved the related issue. I think this comes about in part because we have abandoned the age-threshold rituals and ceremonies that used to somehow ‘cut’ these attachments to our past…

      Ultimately, it seems to me that the problems you highlight arise from the fact that the ground is moving under us all the time, and that we’re all left scrabbling around trying to make sense and cope with the endless changes…

  2. Ah, but Jung persisted in the Osirian myth of birth-life-death-resurrection born of a geocentric conception of the universe. The Sun does not die, it is ever-shining, & night is simply a shadow that passes & is done. You are a star, forever burning brightly, death is a refreshing repose & your life is one, individual & eternal that was & is & is to come.

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