Over the first half of 2021, I’ve been enrolled in an introductory online course in Jungian analytical psychology, through the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. Today was the final day of the program. We met one weekend a month for six months, with a lecture on Saturday and a small group discussion on Sunday. Students also met weekly in pairs, to review the classes and the readings, and also to put some of the concepts into practice.
I feel a little strange writing about this, because in some people’s eyes, it’s a subject that’s too esoteric to spend this much time studying. Jung’s is a famous name, but his work isn’t well known. I completed an entire undergraduate major in psychology, and we hardly talked about him. What mainstream success Jung’s ideas have seen, like the inferiority complex and the theoretical basis of the Meyers-Briggs typology test, aren’t generally attributed to him.
What I’ve learned, however, is that Jung’s theories are much more significant than they’re given credit for, when they’re given any credit at all. It’s much more than just one branch of psychology among many. The reason it rarely merits even that much consideration in academic settings is because it can appear irrational and not evidence-based (which is ironic since Jung himself was a hardcore empiricist).
Once I got past that, however—and I got past it by experiencing it directly and learning to have faith in my experience—I saw that Jungian psychology provides a much wider framework for understanding the world and what it means to be human, kind of a melding of science and spiritual tradition.
This all makes it sound a little like a cult, which means it’s a good time to throw out one of my favorite Jung quotes. He said, “I am not a Jungian.” He wanted to caution that the irrational and spiritual aspects of his theories should not be calcified into a set of unbending dogmas, and that he wasn’t some prophet, just a scientific investigator blazing a trail. Not everyone listened when he said that, but this is one of the many reasons I’m attracted to Jung’s line of study.
My exposure to analytical psychology came from entering therapy sessions with a trained Jungian analyst. His name was John. John told me that he was a Jungian analyst during our first session, but I didn’t yet understand what that meant. I’d come to him on a referral from the doctor who was administering my anti-anxiety medication, knowing nothing about him and not much more about different therapy options (it turns out there are a lot).
It was not my first time on the medication, and I wanted to make sure I was exploring other treatment options, too. I’d seen a couple therapists before, and I hoped that going back to therapy might help me avoid staying on the pills forever (it did) (not to say that there’s anything wrong with taking medication). I told the doctor that I was in the market for a therapist, and he and the nurse turned toward each other and with one voice exclaimed the same name. This was a momentous sign, and I immediately registered with John for an initial appointment.
That was more than eight years ago, and John long ago retired. I would not be where I am today without him, and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten so curious about analytical psychology. The methods and tools that we used, and that I use with my current therapist, work. They work for me, at least. And as I usually do, I began trying to understand how and why they work. At first I would try to do this during sessions, only to discover that talk of theory bogged us down and distracted from the actual therapy. I needed to find some other point of entry.
That’s where this class came in. I picked up many bits and pieces of theory over the years, but I needed to go back and start at the beginning, with an overview of the major themes and concepts, how they were developed and how they fit together, and I didn’t want something that was geared only toward future analysts, of which I am pretty sure I am not one. I just want to use the framework to continue to understand myself and to understand the world.
So the verdict is: success! I got what I was looking for, a springy diving board from which to jump into the deep end of the pool. Now that I’ve hit the water below, I’ll have to see how well I can swim. Hopefully what I’ve been learning has stared to show up in my writing, and in the way I engage with the world and with you.
This was more about my story, but I’m also interested in writing more about what Jungian psychology actually is—are you interested in hearing about that? What questions do you have? Let me know!
We are about halfway through the BBC television adaption of I, Claudius. It’s basically a soap opera about the early Roman Empire and its ruling family, ostensibly taking place in, you know, 1st-century Rome, but really really obviously actually taking place on a total of four studio sets in 1970s England. This is what passed for “prestige” television at the time, and it’s so campy and almost shoddy in its production that it takes a little getting used to.
Once you do, though, you get sucked in by the quality of the acting and by the pure drama of the script. It’s adapted from Robert Graves’ novels of the 1930s, in which Graves took the basic historical story and added in all of the innuendo and rumor that subsequent Roman historians added on, plus a few contrivances of his own. If you’re someone who wants to know the real history, like me, that means you have some sorting out to do, but that ends up being just as fun as watching the show.
You won’t believe which famous actor shows up out of nowhere in episode four—with hair! (I know I’m click-baiting you, but seriously, it’s worth finding out.)
I also highly recommend listening along with I, Podius as you go, a hilarious podcast with John Hodgman and Elliot Kalan which gives the show its due while also making constant fun of it.
I finished This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of novelist Ann Patchett’s essays. My friend and fellow writer Bassam pointed me toward the essay “The Getaway Car,” which is about her writing career and contains the core of her writing philosophy. The piece was so good, her writing so enjoyable and easy to read, that we both read the entire book.
In addition to writing, Patchett’s favorite themes are relationships and love, all different kinds of love. Even when she writes about writing, she’s really writing about love. She writes beautifully of her love for her dog, for her grandmother, for her friends and mentors and teachers, for her father, and for her husband. She writes about the responsibility that comes with love, that it’s through responsibility that love is built, and through responsibility to love that our souls grow. She writes about loss, and divorce. One thing I learned, or re-learned, from this book is that I am an absolute sucker for a great love story. The title essay was my favorite.
Patchett’s really good at the heavy stuff, and she’s also funny. When a random relative at a family reunion insists to Patchett, a novelist, that every person has one great novel in them, Ann asks: “Does every person have one great floral arrangement in them? One great algebraic proof? One five-minute mile?”
You might know Patchett better as the co-founder of Parnassus Books in her hometown of Nashville, which she opened at a time when the city had just lost its only remaining independent bookstore, and most of its others, too, a time when Borders was nosediving into bankruptcy and most people were convinced that print books were dead. The idea of opening a new indie bookstore in this climate was so shocking that the story landed on page A1 of the New York Times, about which, she had this to say:
Imagine a group of highly paid consultants crowded into the offices of my publisher, HarperCollins. Their job is to try and figure out how to get a picture of a literary novelist (me, say) on the front page of the Times. “She could kill someone,” one consultant suggests. The other consultants shake their heads. “It would have to be someone very famous,” another says. “Could she hijack a busload of school children, or maybe restructure the New York public school system?” They sigh. It would not be enough. They run down a list of crimes, stunts, and heroically good deeds, but none of them are Page One material. I can promise you this: kept in that room for all eternity, they would not have landed on the idea that opening a twenty-five-hundred-square-foot bookstore in Nashville would do the trick.
That’s all I’ve got. Please take care, write back if you can, and I’ll see you next week.