Life appears to pause on the last days of the year. The wintery week between Christmas and the New Year seems less frantic. We idle, mimicking the sun that rises late and stays low in the sky.
With the slower pace we see shadows and dreams. It’s the time of year for ghost stories and sci-fi fantasies. Or have you noticed how the news takes on a different quality too, becoming more reflective and archetypal with planes falling out of the sky and ferries burning at sea? It’s a dangerous time of year for elderly celebrities: the deaths of the famous seem to be announced like clock chimes during the short days. We slow down and, perhaps because we are not used to life without distractions, things feel unsettling as if the end of year allows us glimpses of what the apocalyptic imagination calls the end times.
Carl Jung felt that at such times a different dimension to the collective conscious becomes palpable. He himself lived during periods when the shadow side of life was evident at many times of the year, as a result of the edgy distrust of the Cold War and the frightening threat of nuclear war. He believed that the twentieth century was one “filled with apocalyptic images of universal destruction”.
Those particular horrors may have receded, or they may not. But it is striking how quickly the twenty-first century has replaced them with new threats. The most obvious is the devastation that is anticipated as a result of climate change. Or you could point to global terrorism. Or biological threats. And it does not stop there.
We seem to live with a fascination with ruination that extends beyond the possible or probable to the imagined. Look at how the end of the world repeatedly provides an irresistible storyline in movies: this year, there was the film Interstellar with a background story of unsustainable population explosion, and more recently the film Exodus retold the Biblical story of plagues and unnatural destruction.
There are many factors that contribute to these collective preoccupations. Jung was gripped by those that are psychological and reasoned that such concerns – real and imagined – arise in large part when we become disconnected from the spiritual side of life; that connection with depth that grounds us in dynamics of life that become smothered by our distractions and humdrum concerns. It’s only when we idle that we notice it again.
Another factor is modern science. It has yielded unsurpassed knowledge about the human species, but it has led, paradoxically, to a narrower, machine-like conception of what it means to be a human individual. This presumably explains why complementary therapies are flourishing: they try to address the whole person, not just the illness or disease. Or it suggests why ecological lifestyles are increasingly appealing, because they try to reconnect us with the intrinsic value of the natural world.
Conversely, when we lose touch with the spiritual side of life, it returns to haunt us in the kind of fantasies and concerns that come to the fore during these shadowy, last days of the year.
To put it another way, the full life of the psyche is crucial for we humans. Jung believed it is nurtured not just by therapy, but by the great spiritual traditions of our culture, with their subtle stories, sustaining rituals and inspiring dreams. The agnostic West has become detached from these resources. It is as if people are suffering from a loss of soul. Often, now, the world does not seem to be for us, but against us; and that in itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the distance between our conscious lives and the deeper life around us grows.
Towards the end of his life, Jung reflected that many – perhaps most – of the people who came to see him were not, fundamentally, mentally ill. They were, rather, searching for meaning. It is a hard task. “There is no birth of consciousness without pain,” he wrote. But it is vital. Without it, human beings lose their way.
But there is always hope, like the hope of the new year, because the life of the soul – the connection that produces meaning – remains all around us, all along. We only have to take time to look.