Jung on Life, Death, Free Will and Suicide

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

 

Jung on Life, Death, Free Will and Suicide

 

 

“The idea of suicide, understandable as it is, does not seem commendable to me. We live in order to attain the greatest possible amount of spiritual development and self-awareness. As long as life is possible, even if only in a minimal degree, you should hang on to it, in order to scoop it up for the purpose of conscious development. To interrupt life before its time is to bring to a standstill an experiment which we have not set up. We have found ourselves in the midst of it and must carry it through to the end…. That it is extraordinarily difficult for you, with your blood pressure at 80, is quite understandable, but I believe you will not regret it if you cling on even to such a life to the very last. If, aside from your work, you read a good book, as one reads the Bible, it can become a bridge for you leading onwards, along which good things may flow to you such as you perhaps cannot now imagine.”[1]

 

“It is really a question whether a person affected by such a terrible illness should or may end her life. It is my attitude in such cases not to interfere. I would let things happen if they were so, because I’m convinced that if anybody has it in himself to commit suicide, then practically the whole of his being is going that way. I have seen cases where it would have been something short of criminal to hinder the people because according to all rules it was in accordance with the tendency of their unconscious and thus the basic thing. So I think nothing is gained by interfering with such an issue. It is presumably to be left to the free choice of the individual. Anything that seems wrong to us can be right under certain circumstances over which we have no control and the end of which we do not understand. If Kristine Mann had committed suicide under the stress of unbearable pain, I should have thought that this was the right thing. As it was not the case, I think it was in her stars to undergo such a cruel agony for reasons that escape our understanding. Our life is not made entirely by ourselves. The main bulk of it is brought into existence out of sources that are hidden to us. Even complexes can start a century or more before a man is born. There is something like karma. Kristine’s experience you mention is truly of a transcendent nature. … it bears all the characteristics of an ekstasis. … I must say that I have had some experiences along that line. They have given me a very different idea about what death means.” [2]

 

“If your case were my own, I don’t know what could happen to me, but I am rather certain that I would not plan a suicide ahead. I should rather hang on as long as I can stand my fate or until sheer despair forces my hand. The reason for such an ‘unreasonable’ attitude with me is that I am not at all sure what will happen to me after death. I have good reasons to assume that things are not finished with death. Life seems to be an interlude in a long story. It has been long before I was, and it will most probably continue after the conscious interval in a three-dimensional existence. I shall therefore hang on as long as is humanly possible and I try to avoid all foregone conclusions, considering seriously the hints I got as to the post mortem events. Therefore I cannot advise you to commit suicide for so-called reasonable considerations. It is murder and a corpse is left behind, no matter who has killed whom. … Be sure first, whether it is really the will of God to kill yourself or merely your reason. The latter is positively not good enough. If it should be the act of sheer despair, it will not count against you, but a willfully planned act might weigh heavily against you. This is my incompetent opinion. I have learned caution with the “perverse.”[3]

 

“I would share your standpoint of undaunted faith if I were not disturbed by the thought that this earthly life is not supreme, but subject to the decrees of a superior economy. I try to accept life and death. Where I find myself unwilling to accept the one or the other I should question myself as to my personal motives… Is it the divine will? Or is it the wish of the human heart which shrinks from the Void of death?…. There is such a thing as tempus maturum mortis and it is up to our understanding to fulfill its conditions.”[4]

 

Over the course of his long life, Carl Jung received hundreds of letters, many of them available to us in the Bollingen collection of Jung’s letters, 1906-1961.[5] Of these, I found five which referred to suicide and these provide us with interesting insights about Jung’s attitudes toward life, fate, death and self-destruction.

 

How We Might Regard Our Lives

 

In reply to elderly people suffering physical debility (chronically low blood pressure, energy-sapping illnesses) Jung was empathic, recognizing he was “incompetent”[6] to give advice, yet offering his personal opinion about life and what living meant. To Jung, it was clear that our ego is not in control of all aspects of life, that

“Our life is not made entirely by ourselves. The main bulk of it is brought into existence out of sources that are hidden to us. Even complexes can start a century or more before a man is born. There is something like karma.”[7]

and Jung knew that, as the many Greek myths and tragedies[8] warn, it is futile to try to evade our karma.

Jung also suggested to a sick old English woman who asked his opinion about suicide that she might consider her current physical incarnation as just one part (a “chapter” perhaps?) in a longer tale.[9] Death does not “finish” things,[10] but rather pauses an ongoing tale.

“Life seems to be an interlude in a long story. It has been long before I was, and it will most probably continue after the conscious interval in a three-dimensional existence.”[11]

If he were in her situation, Jung wrote, he would try to “hang on as long as is humanly possible.” He also advised her to get clear if “it is really the will of God to kill yourself or merely your reason.”[12]

Jung knew that our rational minds are weak reeds when confronting some of the major problems of life: we don’t “solve” such problems, but outgrow them,[13] and a time of dire illness, great pain and emotional despair is not an interval when we are likely to be so composed of mind as to make sound choices.

To an elderly man suffering from extremely low blood pressure, Jung noted the purpose of life–that life is an “experiment” that we are obligated to “carry… through to the end:”[14]

“We live in order to attain the greatest possible amount of spiritual development and self-awareness. As long as life is possible, even if only in a minimal degree, you should hang on to it, in order to scoop it up for the purpose of conscious development. To interrupt life before its time is to bring to a standstill an experiment which we have not set up. We have found ourselves in the midst of it and must carry it through to the end….”[15]

an “experiment” designed to foster our creating more consciousness and attaining more spiritual understanding. In other words, while we are in “three-dimensional”[16] existence, we should seek to learn and to reflect about the meaning of what we experience.

This notion that life is for learning and growing resonated with me when I had my trimalleolar fracture. After the shock wore off, I wondered what I was to learn from this experience. The immediate learning was to avoid walking in a forest in the darkness, where one could not see where one was putting one’s feet. Duh!

More thoughtful reflection brought to mind a dream I had two weeks before, telling me to be open to receiving.[17] Hum… Given how these dreams always are significant, I felt sure there was a connection to my accident, but what?

That became clear only 3 days later, when I came into class all casted up with about 11 weeks of difficulty mobility ahead of me. One of the students spontaneously passed around a pad of paper and told everyone to sign up to help me.

Then I remembered the dream and did I receive! Over the ensuing months 35 people were so helpful–bringing in my mail, taking out my garbage, doing my banking, driving me to the doctors and the college, bringing me food, even cleaning out my refrigerator!

Later reflection made me question whether I had been too self-sufficient before this? Did I need the proverbial “hit upside the head” (in this case, on the right leg) to recognize how blessed I am in having such generous friends, how I live enmeshed in a web of loving kindness? Jung is right in believing that life is for learning, and we never know just what, when and how we are to learn its lessons.

 

Fate and Divine Will

 

Well-versed as he was in the classics, Jung knew the ancients’ belief in fate–that a person has a destiny, the thread of life spun by Clotho, apportioned by Lachesis, and cut at the time of death by Atropos.[18] The natal chart can be interpreted as a mandala of the “stars”[19] for one’s lifetime, the challenging aspects offering opportunities to learn and grow.

Most Americans dislike the idea of fate: We prefer to think we are in control, the “captains of the ship of life,” but Jung knew we are but passengers. Like any ship, our ship of life has a destination (which comes from the same Latin root as “destiny”–something fixed or determined).[20] As Jung knew, “the basic thing” is “in accordance with the tendency of the unconscious,”[21] and this should not be interfered with.

Kristine Mann had analyzed with and been trained by Jung and was one of the early analysts at the New York Jung Institute.[22] She and her fellow analysts wrote to Jung about her bout with cancer,[23] and the painful agony she suffered in her last months, which occasioned the query about suicide. Seven months after Kristine died, Eleanor Bertine wrote to Jung about Kristine’s last months, and Jung replied that “it was in her [Kristine’s] stars to undergo such a cruel agony for reasons that escape our understanding.”[24] Sometimes the suffering we experience is due to karma–“deeds”[25] from past lifetimes coming back to us to work through in this life.

End of life pain and suffering are often when momentous questions arise, and Jung fielded many from people in extremis. Jung would advise them to “Be sure first, whether it is really the will of God to kill yourself…”[26] for Jung knew how devilish our rational mind can be, how it can create all sorts of justifications and rationalizations–none of which are good enough to warrant suicide. We must interrogate ourselves–what are our motives? our feelings? are we “shrinking from the Void of death”?[27] or living in a tempus maturum mortis[28]–in an appropriate time to die? Jung would remind us that “this earthly life is not supreme, but subject to the decrees of a superior economy.”[29]

Sorting ego will (our “earthly” rational will) from Divine will (“a superior economy”) is not easy, and questions like this are difficult at the best of times, and almost impossible to answer when one’s physical condition is full of pain and despair. Discerning God’s will can be easier if we have a prior lifetime of practicing this–turning over decisions to the Self and then watching for guidance.

In my experience as an astrologer, this surrendering of the ego will is easier for people with easy aspects between Mars (the planet of the ego will) and Pluto (the planet of the Higher Will). For those with squares or oppositions to these two planets, the alignment of ego and Self wills can be a major challenge the soul has chosen to take on in the lifetime: It is what is meant by “the refiner’s fire” in the Old Testament.[30] For those with a hard sidereal configuration of Mars and Pluto it would be especially important to develop a regular practice aligning the two before being in an agonizing situation.

 

What is Death?

 

In his letters to the sick, elderly or those close to death, Jung had interesting perspectives about death. He thought of it as offering “a confrontation with wholeness,”[31] and “a door… to a quite different order of things.”[32] In a letter to Alphonse Maeder, Jung described death as “a faithful companion of life [which] follows it like its shadow.”[33] Jung then went on with an interesting statement: “We have still to understand how very much wanting to live = wanting to die.”[34] Hello? Jung is right: That sentence induces an acute mind cramp. Elsewhere in his writing Jung helps us a bit with an explanation:

“… death is not a meaningless end, the mere vanishing into nothingless–it is an accomplishment, a ripe fruit on the tree of life. Nor is death an abrupt extinction, but a goal that has been unconsciously lived and worked for during half a lifetime.”[35]

The “half” here is the latter half, the “afternoon of life” when, as we age, Jung felt we should prepare for the “transition” from the physical plane to the moment when “soul and spirit must be separated from the body,…”.[36]

To a young man who had an interesting conversation with his recently deceased brother, Jung noted that this contact “is likely to be possible only as long as the feeling of the presence of the dead continues.” But Jung warned the man that this contact

“…should not be experimented with because of the danger of a disintegration of conscious. To be on the safe side, one must be content with spontaneous experiences…. There are experiences which show that the dead entangle themselves, so to speak, in the physiology (sympathetic nervous system) of the living. This would probably result in states of possession.”[37]

Jung would not have us “drawn into the death” of a loved one. I know what Jung means here, having felt the “pull” of death after the deaths of my mother, my aunt and my fiancé.

Jung had a near-death experience following a heart attack in 1945. For weeks as he  “hung on the edge of death,”[38] he had visions. He saw himself high up in space, from which perspective he could see the blue globe of Earth and the subcontinent of India. As he floated in space, he noticed a very large granite block also floating in space, which held a temple. Jung approached the steps leading into the temple and then experienced “a strange thing:”

“I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me—an extremely painful process. Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I have ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history, and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am…. This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness. There was no longer anything I wanted or desired. I existed in an objective form; I was what I had been and lived. At first the sense of annihilation predominated, or having been stripped or pillaged; but suddenly that became of no consequence. Everything seemed to be past;…There was no longer any regret that something had dropped away or been taken away. On the contrary: I had everything that I was, and that was everything.… as I approached the temple I had the certainty that I was about to enter an illuminated room and would meet there all those people to whom I belong in reality. There I would at last understand… what historical nexus I or my life fitted into. I would know… why I had come into being, and where my life was flowing…From below, from the direction of Europe, an image floated up. It was my doctor,…As he stood before me, a mute exchange of thought took place between us. Dr. H. had been delegated by the earth to deliver a message to me, to tell me that there was a protest against my going away. I had no right to leave the earth and must return. The moment I heard that, my vision ceased….”[39]

As is common in NDEs Jung felt acute disappointment at not being allowed to continue on, to cross over into the afterlife. He hovered between life and death for 3 weeks before making up his mind to live again. Compared to the freedom he felt in his vision, living felt like prison, returning to the physical plane like being in the “box system.”[40] By day Jung was depressed, by night he was swept up in ecstasy, ineffable bliss, within visions that gave him the experience of “the odor of sanctity,… a pneuma of inexpressible sanctity in the room, whose manifestation was the mysterium coniunctionis….”[41] As he healed, the visions grew fainter until they finally ceased altogether.

Years later Jung could look back and declare these visions “were the most tremendous things I have ever experienced…. not a product of imagination. The visions and experiences were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them; they all had a quality of absolute objectivity.”[42]

As is often the case with people who have had a near-death experience, Jung’s near-death visions had given him “a very different idea about what death means.”[43] Jung came to conclude that “The dead are surely not to be pitied–they have so infinitely much more before them than we do–… Enviable the lot of those who have crossed the threshold,…”.[44]

In a commiserating letter to Hannah Oeri, widow of Jung’s life-long friend Albert, Jung wrote of how “our psyche reaches into a region held captive neither by change in time nor by limitation of place. In that form of being our birth is a death and our death is a birth.”[45] “Something of the human soul remains after death,”[46] Jung wrote to M. Esther Harding, in response to her letter about Kristine Mann’s death. Death is not to be regarded as extinction. Jung knew, from his own experience, “that things are not finished with death.”[47]

 

What About Suicide?

 

If death does not “finish things,” what is accomplished by suicide? Jung did not discourage his correspondents from committing it, but he never was dogmatic, as he understood that

“Anything that seems wrong to us can be right under certain circumstances over which we have no control and the end of which we do not understand.”[48]

He did not find “the idea of suicide” to be “commendable.”[49] And he was certain that “I would not plan a suicide ahead….”[50] nor would he advise his correspondent

“to commit suicide for so-called reasonable considerations. It is murder and a corpse is left behind, no matter who has killed whom…. a willfully planned act might weigh heavily against you…. I have learned caution with the ‘perverse’.”[51]

Jung left it to each person to wrestle with this question, given their personal history, current circumstances, and level of consciousness. Given the rampant judgmentalism in our contemporary culture, we would do well to take a page out of Jung’s book and refrain from judging the decisions of others.

 

Bibliography

 

Jung, C.G. (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lewis, Charlton & Charles Short (1969), A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

March, Jenny (1998), Dictionary of Classical Mythology. London: Cassell.

 

 

 

 

[1] “Letter to Alphonse Maeder,” 26 February 1918; Letters I, 34.

[2] “Letter to Eleanor Bertine,” 25 July 1946; Letters, I, 435-436.

[3] “Letter to Anonymous,” 19 November 1955; Letters, II, 278-279.

[4] “Letter to the Mother Prioress of a Contemplative Order,” 26 March 1960; Letters, II, 546-547.

 

[5] Edited by Gerhard Adler, in collaboration with Aniela Jaffé, and translated by R.F.C. Hull.

[6] “Letter to Anonymous,” 19 November 1955; Letters, II, 278-279.

[7] “Letter to Eleanor Bertine,” 25 July 1946; Letters, II. 436-437.

[8] E.g. Oedipus feeling Corinth to avoid killing his father, only to encounter his real father on the road to Thebes.

[9] “Letter to Anonymous,” 19 November 1955: Letters, II, 279.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Collected Works 13 ¶18.  Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[14] “Letter to Anonymous,” 10 July 1946; Letters, I, 434.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Letter to Anonymous,” 19 November 1955; Letters, I, 279.

[17] This was one of the “voice-over” dreams I have gotten since November 25, 1983; these often come before I understand what is going to happen and they help to warn or prepare me for a future event.

[18] March (1998), 163.

[19] “Letter to Eleanor Bertine,” 25 July 1946; Letters, I, 436.

[20] From destinare, “to determine, fix;” Lewis & Short, 560.

[21] “Letter to Eleanor Bertine,” 25 July 1946; Letters, I. 436.

[22] The library at the New York Jung Institute is named for her.

[23] E.g. “Letter to Kristine Mann,” 1 February 1945; Letters, I, 357-358; “Letter to Eleanor Bertine,” 25 July 1946; Letters, I, 436-7; and “Letter to Margaret Erwin Schevill,” 25 July 1946; Letters, I, 437-438.

[24] “Letter to Eleanor Bertine,” 27 July 1946; Letters, I, 436-7.

[25] The Sanskrit word karma means “deeds.”

[26] “Letter to Anonymous,” 19 November 1955; Letters, II, 279.

[27] “Letter to the Mother Prioress of a Contemplative Order,” 26 March 1960; Letters, II, 547.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Malachi 3:2.

[31] “Letter to Anonymous,” 26 June 1956; Letters, II, 310.

[32] “Letter to Pastor W. Arz,” 17 February 1933; Letters, I, 117/

[33] “Letter to Alphonse Maeder,” 26 February 1918; Letters, I, 34.

[34] Ibid.

[35] CW 18 ¶1706.

[36] CW 12 ¶165.

[37] “Letter to Pastor Fritz Ffäfflin,” Letters, I, 258.

[38] Jung (1965), 289.

[39] Ibid., 289-292.

[40] Ibid., 292.

[41] Ibid., 295.

[42] Ibid.

[43] “Letter to Eleanor Bertine,” 25 July 1946; Letters, I, 437.

[44] “Letter to Hannah Oeri,” 23 December 1950; Letters, I, 568-569.

[45] Ibid.

[46] “Letter to M. Esther Harding,” 5 December 1951; Letters, II, 29.

[47] “Letter to Anonymous,” 19 November 1955; Letters, II, 279.

[48] “Letter to Anonymous,” 10 July 1946; Letters, I, 434.

[49] Ibid.

[50] “Letter to Anonymous,” 19 November 1955; Letters, II, 279.

[51] Ibid.

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