Our unlived lives take their revenge through our restless feelings of dissatisfaction, guilt over failing to live up to our hopes and dreams, emotional pain that undermines us, destructive habits, and even in our illnesses. The roots of the things that often disrupt our lives, drain our energy and thwart our intentions lie in the conflict between our longings for growth and freedom, our longings for peace and safety, and our reluctance or refusal to pay the price for our authenticity through a special kind of suffering. In his “The Age of Anxiety”, W. H. Auden says: “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”
The special kind of suffering I am talking about comes when we try our best to acknowledge the complexes that drive our lives, to seek to transform them and to live the unlived portions of our lives that have been left in their wake. We call this “transformative suffering.” (See my lecture, “A Lifetime of Promise: A Jungian Guide to Discovering the Transformative Power in Our Complexes.”) This venture will quickly teach us that to love life and to be fully engaged in it will threaten the walls supporting the identity we have so carefully constructed.
Most of us want to define ourselves as some version of a person that wants to think positively, be nice, good, caring, handles money well, takes obligations seriously and generally acts responsibly. In fact, to even begin questioning how we have defined ourselves and to begin seeking to become more conscious of our wholeness creates a fear that we may be only dimly aware of, but that is strong as our fear of death. In addition, far too many of us feel so overwhelmed by our obligations and the pace of our lives that we only long for peace and balance. To be in this position makes Jung’s statement that “…he could not imagine a fate more awful, a fate worse than death, that a life lived in perfect balance and harmony…” baffling and scary.
The creation story of our unlived lives starts soon after we are born and we begin shaping ourselves to avoid shame, punishment, harm and embarrassment. Little daily decisions and bargains with ourselves help us become collaborators in the demise of our spirits. Choosing how we will be good, what we will rebel against, the desirability of certain playmates, bribes for grades, or good grades to earn love, help us “sell out” our integrity and undermine our self-worth, even though some of this is necessary to actually form our identity and grow up. Embracing practicality, being sensible, the promise of a “good life” with success and the avoidance of pain keep us off the byways that could add depth, meaning and vitality to our lives. The inner voices of integrity, conscience and authenticity weaken against the pressure of conventional wisdom, busy and demanding lives, and the fearful appearance of the world. Before long, we are so embedded in our identities that, without knowing it, what we have considered our best characteristics may have become expressions of our major complexes. Yet, questioning ourselves has become difficult and threatening as we fear that it may disrupt our lives.
To reverse this process, in order to become more whole and authentic, we must find the courage to face the parts of ourselves we have denied. The process actually begins with confronting our ideals, values and obligations. In the long run, our option may be to confront them or die from them. I have seen more than one person sacrifice their life to an illness rather than give up their persona of a positive attitude and take the perilous journey into their grief, rage and history. It is no easy matter to consider that our melancholy, despair, rage, and fear may be the gateways to new life, creativity, love, and awe.
I remember working with a woman brought up as the youngest of four children with a cold mother and an angry father. She survived her childhood by doing well in school and later by pleasing her superiors. But in midlife, her denied needs and potentials rebelled leaving her overweight and depressed. The answer for her was not in the mainstream treatment of her depression. It was in getting to know the negative complex that kept her so self-critical and self-belittling that an important part of her was paralyzed in passivity. Working through this complex freed her animus, her inner masculine strength that could support her having her own voice. Psychologically, it was like Cinderella breaking free to meet her prince. This prince helped her recognize her denied capacities and gave her the strength to devote her life to bringing these abilities into her living reality.
I also recall a middle-aged man who had been raised to be a pleaser, to repress the strength of his own desires and to sublimate his needs into finding approval by satisfying others. But after two failed marriages, he realized that his relationships had been formed on a lie, a version of himself that wasn’t deeply real and on an idealism that would make any relationship hopeless. To begin with, he had to find the courage to face disapproval, to take the risks of first standing up to the voices of his indoctrination in his psyche, and then confronting the people his new identity disturbed. This group also included the people he had unconsciously trained to expect him to be a pleaser. Then, in order to free his anima, to allow his inner Cinderella to come to the ball, he had to explore his moods, the ones he had tried to conceal even from himself, along with the blocked emotions they represented.
In these two oversimplified examples, both people had to face the fear and loneliness that had pressured them into their roles, and then their anger and grief over their early reality. This vital work released new, potent energy within them and increased their feelings of strength, competence, and hope in the future.
Our unlived lives – the values, visions, talents and longings we haven’t admitted – are actually necessary as part of our wholeness, and essential to support our true purpose, meaning and trust in life. Unlived life will begin rebelling when its repression becomes a toxic part of our makeup, and when our failure to love ourselves is failing our future.
This rebellion will test us in the halls of the most sacrosanct and vulnerable parts of how we value ourselves, the foundations of our identity. Facing ourselves and our unlived lives isn’t easy work. We call it “confronting the unconscious,” but the need for it shows that we are being called by the life force within our depths, the Self, to become, to truly experience a second birth, to become a co-creator with the Divine and to live beyond our conventional ideas of the “good life” in order to help heal and redeem ourselves and our part of the world.
Our greatest spiritual traditions are based on the themes of self-knowledge, growth and transformation. The mystical traditions raise our journey into wholeness to a journey into holiness. This lifts our lives into a realm that is far more profound than simply trying to be good and happy. The call of our unlived life is a call from our Self. The Self in Jungian terms represents our instinctual drive for consciousness and wholeness. Archetypically, it is the supreme ordering system in our psyche and is continuously focused on trying to develop us to fulfill the highest potentials within us. The real struggle is between our willingness to participate in our transformation and our often unconscious yearning to stay safely grounded in our old selves.
The failure to search for the calls of the Self in the midst of my struggles or to avoid the encounters that reveal them are a risk I am no longer willing to take. Whether these events fail to enrich my life or bring it new hope, joy and love along with life’s suffering is up to me. The cross of the moment may require me to overcome my dread or lethargy with passion and if I do so, the moment of the special suffering of transformation will give birth to hope, confidence and the renewed experience of being fully alive.
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris