“In each of us is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.”Carl Jung
Two years ago I dreamed this dream:
I was taking a summer walk near my childhood home, when the leaves on the trees around me suddenly turned crimson, and snow began to fall. The houses on each side of the street were decaying, overtaken by moss, mold, and ivy. Two dark figures coalesced out of the shadows behind me: a man and a wolf with glowing red eyes. They charged at me. Instead of running away, I faced them and ran to meet them, and as I did so I became larger and luminous, with light shooting out of my fingertips. I braced for impact, but there was none. They either passed through me, or into me, or disappeared. Somehow I knew that if I had turned tail and run away, the shadows would have eaten me.
Dreams are a Doorway to the Unconscious
As soon as I woke, I knew this wasn’t an ordinary dream. This one had something to say to me, or rather, to show me. It contained a symbol that exemplified the very opposite of how I felt in my waking life at the time (which was avoidant and afraid). The hero of that dream was somehow “me” and “not me” at the same time.
As a nightly universal human phenomenon, I don’t consider dreams to be “divine revelation,” but they are revelatory nonetheless, though the source exists within ourselves: it is the unconscious portion of our being, the inner other, that we may be quick to dismiss or ignore.
The psychologist Carl Jung believed that dreams are impartial, spontaneous creations of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. Dreams “show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.” Carl Jung wrote extensively about dreams, symbols, and the complexity of the human psyche. A central part of his therapeutic work with clients involved “walking around” the meaning of their dreams with them. The symbols contained in their dreams, which often united contradictory and opposing forces into one image, reliably helped his clients transcend their experiences of meaninglessness, distress, “stuckness,” and ambivalence.
While Freud viewed dreams and the unconscious side of human nature as a hotbed of deception and suppressed desires, a basement teeming with horrors, Jung believed that dream symbols had the value of parables. He said that dreams do not conceal, but rather teach in the best way they know how — not in words but in images.
From Jung’s perspective, the unconscious can balance us out if we’re willing to pay attention, because it compensates for the one-sidedness, self-sufficiency, and pride of the ego. Just as a walk in the woods, an hour in the garden, or a week by the sea has the potential to recalibrate us after “too much civilization,” so contact with the unconscious can provide us with the opportunity for a reset. “Entering the unconscious, entering yourself through dreams, is touching nature from the inside and this is the same thing” as spending time in the natural world; “things are put right again,” Jung wrote.
The Midlife Crisis is the Megaphone of the Unconscious
But the experience of “putting things right” within ourselves is not always pleasant: it may feel like setting a broken bone. There are moments when things long hidden deep inside us start welling up and making their presence known — perhaps in dreams, perhaps through unpleasant physical symptoms, mental or emotional distress, relationship troubles, malaise, self-sabotaging behaviors, or an overwhelming sense of feeling stuck in an insoluble problem. Jungian analyst Lisa Marchiano describes the unconscious as a hand that reaches up from the ground and grabs you by the ankle: it won’t let you move forward until you’ve dealt with what it’s trying to offer you. Such experiences can become especially acute at the inflection point of midlife (between 35 and 50), when adults have settled into their habits, identities, and achievements. As people at this age face their mortality, they often find that the unconscious part of themselves has quite a bit to say, and is willing to go to great lengths to get the conscious ego’s attention: that’s the “midlife crisis.”
A person in midlife may try to avoid awareness of their unconscious life. Instead of holding the tension inside to build up the necessary pressure for psychological change, some people waste the potential energy generated by the unconscious and let it leak out into the external world. That’s the new Ferrari, or the Harley Davidson. That’s the affair, the divorce, the career change — plenty of outward distractions to choose from. But people in midlife don’t need a new car, a new lover, or a new job. They need a new self, one that contains more of reality, a self that is balanced and whole. “To become acquainted with oneself is a terrible shock,” Jung admitted, and “people will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls,” for “there is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
Wholeness is found on the far side of suffering and fruitful uncertainties. As Christians, we can sometimes seek a premature inner peace, as if we were praying away our doubts, griefs, and internal ambivalences rather than putting them to work. If we desire contact with reality, including the reality of ourselves, then we need to stay oriented toward discovery, even though it’s true that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Ecc. 1:18, NIV).
To borrow a phrase from Jungian psychologist Jordan Peterson, nobody likes the experience of being “poked in the axioms,” but this is exactly what the unconscious does to us — especially at midlife — and this is a gift. “Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest heart,” the author George MacDonald wrote. “They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood.”
Is the Unconscious Just Another Name for the Flesh?
A common Christian formulation for what’s wrong in our lives is that unholy trinity of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” — sin as it exists at the personal, collective, and cosmic levels. But sometimes our seasons of distress and uncertainty are actually instigated not by something evil, but by the unconscious: an ultimately friendly source, which (like a brother or sister) has our back. This hidden part of ourselves isn’t hellbent on taking us down — it wants to balance us out. Whether we experience this realignment as refreshing or excruciating depends in large part on how one-sided we’ve become, and how cooperative we’re willing to be.
The unconscious is not synonymous with “the flesh” or “the sinful nature,” for it contains as much potential for good as for evil: it is “that most central of centers, that deepest of depths, which is also openness to transcendence” (Olivier Clément). Jung recognized the fundamental ambiguity of the unconscious, which is not only dark but also light, “not only bestial, semi-human, and demonic, but superhuman, spiritual, and, in the classical sense of the word, ‘divine.’” So if the unconscious speaks to us in dreams, shouts to us in midlife, pokes us in our settled certainties, and is morally ambivalent, what exactly is it? And why should Christians in particular dialogue with it?