The assembled man: the endless search for identity


Nothing’s happening. The air seems to have been sucked out of the room. And every morning I find myself waking up in that room feeling worse rather than better.

By now I know what’s going on. It’s my 10-year phenomenon. Once a decade I drop into a deep state of withdrawal from the human race. The first time it happened I’d finished high school and wasn’t ready to move on to college, so I locked myself up in my parent’s basement where I slept all day and made art all night, chain smoked and drank coffee. Sometimes I’d walk downtown to the all night coffee shop and hang out with the other weird all-nighters, the barflies, hookers, druggies, mental cases, bikers and hippies. I eventually snapped out of it and got a job and a girlfriend at about the same time.

The next time it happened I was somewhat surprised (if one can be surprised when one is majorly depressed). I was in my late 20s. I’d partied through the decade, started a business and was paying the price: going through a divorce.

So here I am again at the end of one decade and the beginning of another. And again questions. What am I doing with my life? Why don’t I want anything? According to Jung, this loss of vitality comes as a byproduct of aging.

How do we see ourselves? Who are we? How am I the same as, or different from, someone else? Everyone else? How do we present ourselves to others? Are we the same person no matter who we’re with, or do we create a slightly new persona for each new encounter? These are interface questions, rising up from the zone between the public and the private person.

When describing this kind of thing Jung used the term “labile.” Labile comes from the Latin labilis, meaning liable to slip, and in psychology the term labile refers to uncontrolled moods or emotions. In short, unstable.

One of my personal hallmarks when I slide into this once-in-a-decade retreat is a growing interest in the dark side. It’s as if death and sexuality pair up in a kind of dark eroticism. These are thoughts that don’t quite fit dinner party conversation. My taste runs to darker movies, like new The Road or the much older spectacularly dark romance, The Night Porter.

And now there’s also the Internet. But in this disassembled personal state, the Internet is a hall of mirrors. Everyone on the Internet, it seems, is assembling some kind of personal image. They use photo avatars instead of real photos of themselves. Every fetish is presented as personal identification, from the fundamental Christian family mom to the tattooed porn queen, either male or female, documented in the act.

So is the answer to assemble my own version of a constructed person and post it online, on Facebook, Twitter or a blog? The answer, of course, ain’t out there. It’s in here, inside.

In searching for a reference to Jung online I stumbled across some good info on a rather eclectic website authored by one Betty Schueler, Ph.D. Here’s what she wrote:

“(James) Hillman (1979) quotes the Jungian Aniela Jaffé as once saying “The psychological path of individuation is ultimately a preparation for death”. But what is individuation? It is a process of maturation in which the psyche ages or matures in much the same manner as the physical body. The general guidelines are summarized by Jacobi (1973) as consisting of four parts:

1. Becoming conscious of the shadow. The shadow is our dark side, containing those things that we have repressed or ignored for one reason or another. It usually manifests to us in dreams as an archetypal figure who is dark and ominous. Just as the persona is that part of us that we want to present to the world, so the shadow contains those things that we want to hide from the world, and from ourselves. This dark side of ourselves must be confronted and accepted, at least in part, as the first step in the individuation order to become a whole and complete person.

2. Becoming conscious of the anima or animus. Basically, the anima is the feminine soul or inner femininity of every man, and the animus is the inner masculinity of every women. The individuation process is, above everything else, a process of wholeness. This includes sexual completeness. Jung (1978) wrote that the anima and animus represent “functions which filter the contents of the collective unconscious through to the conscious mind.” Thus when the ego seeks to find the inner Self, it must look through the anima or animus, which colors its perception in many different ways. Edinger (1995) distinguishes four separate progressive states of maturation in the ego’s relation to the anima:
(i) the infantile state, in which the ego is totally unaware of the anima or animus
(ii) the projected state, in which the anima or animus is projected outward into people of the opposite sex
(iii) the possessed state, in which the ego is possessed or governed by the anima or animus, and
(iv) the conscious state, in which the ego becomes conscious of the anima or animus.

3. Becoming conscious of the archetypal spirit. This archetype, as I noted above, is often represented in fairy tales as the wise old man, especially for men. For women, it often takes the form of Magna Mater, the great earth mother. The individuation process is primarily one of uniting opposites. In the first step, we unite good and evil and try to see ourselves as capable of both. Eastern religions often symbolize this with the lotus, which has its roots below in the dirty mud and its flower in the clean air above. In the second, we see ourselves as containing both masculine and feminine characteristics. Now we must unite matter and spirit, form and formlessness, body and psyche. Jung (1990) called the archetypes of spirit and matter “mana-personalities” where mana means extraordinary power. In part, this step includes liberation of a man from his father, and of a women from her mother leading, in both cases, to true individuality.

4. Becoming conscious of the Self. Jung called this final step self-realization-- “We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” or “self-realization”“ (Jung, 1977, p. 173). Jacobi (1973) says “For the conscious personality the birth of the self means a shift in its psychic centre, and consequently an entirely different attitude toward, and view of, life--in other words a ‘transformation’ in the fullest sense of the word” (p. 127). The Self is often symbolized by a circle or mandala, glyphs which represent completeness. Each step of the individuation process has its dangers that must be avoided, and each has its rewards. He (1978) warns that individuation is an ongoing endless process, and that as it progresses, the chief danger is an inflation of the ego.

“But why does the ego need to approach the Self, if it is all to end in death? Jung (1991) says “The psyche itself, in relation to consciousness, is pre-existent and transcendent.” So, while the ego is born, grows, and dies in the same way as the body, the psyche itself—and especially the Self—is not under the same limitations. Jung’s eternal archetypal Self is…one reason why mainstream materialistic psychologists fail to take him seriously. He is, however, taken seriously by today’s transpersonal psychologists.”

Jung’s idea of individuation as a life’s work seems directly opposite to modern behaviour. According to a recent Ipsos Reid poll, the average Canadian spends 18 hours a week on the Internet and another 16 hours a week watching TV. I assume that doesn’t cover watching movies. The steady barrage of manufactured personalities is simply overwhelming. Defining one’s personal sense of self is bound to be influenced by the media, whether it’s Facebook profiling, reality TV, celebrity buzz or movie characters. The idea of actual individuation has to be more remote than ever.

And yet… And yet there’s a tremendous amount of spiritual activity out there. It has never been easier to construct a synthetic spiritual side, or synthetic personality. We are well beyond creating mere avatars. We are manufacturing simulacra of ourselves, artificial versions of who we are.

I’m beginning to get it. And I'm beginning to feel a bit better. There’s a reason we need to look directly into our shadow sides. It helps us realize that fantasies that appeal to our dark sides are natural expeditions. There’s a reason we need to explore the animus and anima sides of ourselves. I remember waking from a dream that had something to do with Marilyn Monroe. Days later I realized that my dream of her was actually an internal image of my feminine self, or some feminine need within myself—a forgiving softness, a vulnerability and open sensuality that my male conscious state simply doesn’t allow—that needed expression.

And then there are archetypes. Sometimes we need to visit the warrior. And sometimes we need to visit the Magdalene. As Jung points out, the path toward self-realization is more than an egocentric goal, it’s the path to understanding not only ourselves but every other living and inanimate thing in the universe.

Developing a fully realized human spirit is no small undertaking for any of us. Sure, there’s the incredible lightness of being, but there’s also a place for the darkness of being.


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