Jung On There Are No Accidents: Making Meaning Out of Tragedy

“… in psychology there are no blind accidents, much as we are inclined to assume that these things are pure chance. You can hear this objection is often as you like from our critics, but for a really scientific mind there are only causal relationships and no accidents.”[1]

“A very large number of accidents of every description, more than people would ever guess, are of psychic causation, ranging from trivial mishaps like stumbling, banging oneself, burning one’s fingers, etc., to car smashes and catastrophes in the mountain: all these may be psychically caused and may sometimes have been preparing for weeks or even months. I have examined many cases of this kind, and often I could point to dreams which showed signs of a tendency to self-injury weeks before hand. All those accidents that happen from so-called carelessness should be examined for such determinants.”[2]

“This unconscious urge to suicide then engineered all kinds of dangerous accidents – …”[3]

“For us accidents of this kind have their recognizable natural cause in a somewhat distracted psychological state, but for the primitives they are objectively conditioned omens, or sorcery.”[4]

“… be willing to listen to whatever life presents,” is, I think, quite a good piece of advice when confronted with a random event that confounds our plans or shows us something other than what we expected. The unanticipated turn of events we are faced with might well be a turning point of a story we had not yet realized we were a character in.”[5]

“Being both determined and willing to let go is a challenge for anyone, and yet, it is a requisite skill if we are to draw meaning from the “accidents” that befall us.”[6] Hopcke, 101

“… there are no accidents in the stories of our lives.”[7] Hopcke, 252

Many years ago, while I was teaching at College of the Atlantic, one of the administrative staff came in one day obviously upset, and when I asked her what happened, she said that she had crashed her car. Before I could respond, she added something that struck me as profoundly insightful: “Yeah, I was upset and kicking myself for doing a stupid thing, and then BAM!–I hit a tree, almost as if I didn’t even see it–but I know I wanted to punish myself.”

As I read Jung’s thoughts about accidents, this memory of Cheri’s “accident” came back to me, as it illustrates Jung’s statement that many accidents have a “psychic causation,”[8] some trivial, others serious to the point of fatal. From his work with hundreds of patients, Jung knew that “in psychology there are no blind accidents,…”[9] and, as a scientist, Jung always sought the “causal relationships”[10] which underlie those life events we would dismiss as “pure chance.”[11]

In this essay, we will begin with a definition of “accident,” then consider Jung’s views on why “stuff” happens, and conclude with Jung’s and Jungian analyst Robert Hopcke’s suggestions on how we might re-perceive the seemingly accidental events in our lives.

The Meanings of “Accident”

The dictionary lists five meanings for the noun “accident:”[12] as “something harmful or unlucky that happens” (like Cheri’s car smash-up); “something that happens without being planned intended, wanted or known in advance,” as when two people meet without planning or forethought; third, as “chance,” which might seem fortuitous or lucky; fourth, as “any nonessential quality,” when, for example, we are describing the features of something; and “accident” can also be used to describe “an irregularity in surface or structure” of something, e.g. slubbed silk has tiny lumps of yarn that create the intentional irregular surface of the fabric.[13]

The Latin root conveys the nature of the event: ad + cedere means to “befall,”[14] and an “accident” is something that “befalls” us, and usually this happens without any conscious intention on our part. When Cheri drove her car into the tree, at that moment she did not intend to do it, but later, on reflection, she understood the unconscious motive behind her unintentional action.

Jung on Accidents

To my knowledge, Cheri never had a Jungian analysis, but she had a high level of self-awareness, to know that much of what we do happens without our conscious effort or desire. The more unconscious we are, the more likely we are to sabotage ourselves, when, as Jung notes, “the unconscious turns dangerous on its own account.”[15] One of the most common forms of this danger, according to Jung, as “the instigating of accidents,”[16] and Jung saw, in the dreams of his patients, how the psyche had been preparing the event “for weeks or even months.”[17] Jung could often “point to dreams which showed signs of a tendency to self-injury weeks beforehand.”[18]

In dealing with his patients, Jung recognized the connection between neurosis and accidents:

“The mildest forms of neurosis are the lapses of consciousness… – e.g., slips of the tongue, suddenly forgetting names and dates, inadvertent clumsiness leading to injuries and accidents, misunderstandings and so-called hallucinations of memory, as when we think we have said something or done something, or faulty apprehension of things heard and said, and so on.”[19]

Neurotics will manifest symptoms “of a psychogenic nature,”[20] and the more serious the neurosis, the more likely the individual’s repressed libido will “provoke all sorts of accidents, within and without–symptoms of every description which force themselves on him in a disagreeable way.”[21]

Left untreated, neuroses’ symptoms worsen into what Jung called a “vicious circle,”[22] in which “retreat from life leads to regression, and regression heightens resistance to life.”[23] Jung had some patients whose resistance grew to the point where an “unconscious urge to suicide then engineered all kinds of dangerous accidents.”[24] Dreams in the analysis gave Jung clues, so that his patients “could then consciously recognize and avoid the situations that tempted them to self-destruction.”[25]

Re-perceiving Accidents

Jung was a teleologist,[26] that is, he recognized the psyche has its purposes and goals, whether we recognize these or not. In his work with his patients’ dreams, Jung knew he had “to look for the seeming accident, for in psychology there are no blind accidents,”[27] however much we might want to dismiss such things as “pure chance.”[28]

Jung was also a scientist,[29] with a “really scientific mind,” [30]so he was never satisfied, even when a patient was ready to dismiss the warning in a dream as a trivial coincidence. Jung would spot the causal relationships and pay attention to the psyche’s messages. He knew the dreams (as the psyche’s language)[31] would “show the existence of some content, which, in an indirect and unconscious way, was distorting the performance of the conscious mind.”[32] Whether the accident occurred in a dream or in outer life, Jung would ask his patient what information the psyche was conveying, what message or warning it was offering up.

In his belief in the purposive and meaningful nature of accidents, Jung was not alone. Jungian analyst Robert Hopcke wrote a substantial book[33] full of examples of how his patients’ seemingly unfortunate “accidents” turned out to be as meaningful as they were valuable. In addition to providing numerous examples of accidents befalling his analysands, and how they reacted, Hopcke offers suggestions on how to turn tragedies or misfortunes into positives.

First, Hopcke is honest that such a re-perception is not easy: It requires our adopting an attitude of openness, to “be willing to listen to whatever life presents,”[34] with a psychological, emotional and symbolic curiosity about the chance events that happen to us, good or bad, painful or happy, sweet or sour.”[35] In the thick of handling the aftermath of a serious accident, such an open, curious attitude might be hard to summon up. So take it easy. Take time to process the event, to mourn the loss, to come to turns with the new reality–even as you entertain the possibility that your soul intends something good, that the accident “may well be a turning point in the story we are living every day.”[36]

Jung and Hopcke urge people addressing the consequences of a serious accident to rely on the wisdom and guidance of the Self, as seen in the dreams, synchroncities, intuitions and bodily reactions that show up.[37] Nothing is ever wasted, and nothing happens by chance.[38] I say this from personal experience.

In the most significant accident I had in my life–my trimalleolar fracture that laid me up for eleven weeks in 2013–I was fortunate that I had one of my “voice-over”[39] dreams two weeks before, telling me to “be open to receiving.” At the time of the dream, I had no idea what to make of this directive, but, after 30 years’ experience with this rare type of dream, I knew I had to pay attention. But there was no context. The psyche, I knew, operates outside time,[40] so I trusted the context would be made clear eventually.

I did not have long to wait. On July 29th, while gathering signatures for a petition drive, I stepped into something in the dark, witnessed my foot hanging off the end of my leg, and wound up in the ER, with the doctor telling me I would be laid up for many weeks. The next day, as students arrived for a class, seeing me hobbling in a cast, one student passed around a sign-up sheet for driving, cooking, errand-running and other ways to help me. Then, I remembered the dream, and knew I had to be open to help–my usual self-sufficiency mind-set had to be relinquished, and the unfortunate fracture opened me to wonderful helpers, so many delicious meals, happy times with the folks who brought in my mail, took out my garbage, did my banking–I was so blessed in what seemed initially to be a tragedy! Had it not been for this “accident,” years-long friendships, meetings that likely would never have happened, now enrich my life.

Carl Jung and Robert Hopcke would have us be open to re-perceiving what seems in the moment to be a painful, miserable disaster. We have the choice to lament, curse ill luck, and wallow in self-pity OR to be open to making another choice: to consider that “nothing occurs by chance and that everything has the potential to be meaningful.”[41] We can entertain the possibility that what now is awful might “well be a turning point in the story we are living every day, [as] there are no accidents in the stories of our lives.”[42]

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this essay.

Bibliography

Commoner, Barry (1971), The Closing Circle: Nature, Man & Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Hopcke, Robert (1997), There Are No Accidents; Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives. New York: Riverhead Books.

Jung, C.G. (1961), Freud and Psychoanalysis. Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1956), Symbols of Transformation. Collected Works, 5. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Collected Works, 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Collected Works, 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), Civilization in Transition. Collected Works, 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (19 69), Psychology and Religion, West and East. Collected Works, 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), The Practice of Psychotherapy. Collected Works, 16. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Collected Works, 4 ¶495. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated as CW.

[2] CW 7 ¶194.

[3] CW 16 ¶128.

[4] CW 10 ¶125/

[5] Hopcke (1997), 101.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 252

[8] CW 7 ¶194.

[9] CW 4 ¶495.

[10]Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 12.

[13] Ibid., II, 1834.

[14] Lewis & Short (1969), 12.

[15] CW 7 ¶194.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] CW 16 ¶126.

[20] Ibid.

[21] CW 4 ¶515.

[22] Ibid. ¶403.

[23] Ibid.

[24] CW 16 ¶128.

[25] Ibid.

[26] CW 7 ¶239.

[27] CW 4 ¶495.

[28] Ibid.

[29] CW 11 ¶461.

[30] CW 4 ¶495.

[31] CW 8 ¶300.

[32] CW 16 ¶127.

[33] There Are No Accidents: synchronicity and the stories of our lives.

[34] Hopcke (1997), 101.

[35] Ibid., 252.

[36] Ibid.

[37] CW 5 ¶611.

[38] The first clause here is a basic law of ecology (Commoner (1971; 39-41); for the second, see CW 8 ¶823.

[39] “Voice-over” is the term I use to refer to an auditory hallucination that occurs during sleep in which there is no action, just words. The first instance of this was on November 25th, 1983, when I was told friends would die, relatives would die, and I would give up everything. These predictions began to unfold five days later. Since then I have had multiple such dreams and over time, painfully, I had to learn to let go of ego desires and be open to the guidance of the Self, making for a very unusual lifestyle!

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

[41] Hopcke (1997), 244.

[42] Ibid., 252.