The Unlived Life

“Nothing has a stronger influence on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”

— Carl Jung

I have a collection of little pieces of paper torn from mostly newsletters that display inspirational quotes. With the demise of the paper newsletter my collection has grown little in a decade. Some of these quotes end up in view and others are tossed into drawers or mark books. Every now and then one of them will emerge from a pile of ephemera and stay visible for months. The quote above from Carl Jung, the founder of archetypal psychology was on my desk at work. I saw it there for a number of months and then a few days ago for no particular reason I read it again and it began to sink in.

As a psychotherapist in practice for over thirty years I have spent thousands of hours listening to people’s stories. Part of my job is to help people understand their own narrative especially how the past sometimes cast its shadow over the present. Every story is different and all stories are in some ways the same. Suffering is not unique. We all suffer. Pain is pain. What we do about it is what is exciting. The courage and creativity we muster is the shining part of any tale we tell.

An occupational hazard is that the shiny parts of the story are surrounded by the commonplace suffering that can frankly be boring particularly when it is repeated. And it is repeated and repeated. The effect on me for years has been drowsiness.

I know from conversations with colleagues that I am not unique in this experience. I know from being on the client side of therapy that I have put to sleep some of the best therapists in the country.

Jung’s quote on the unlived life is helpful in understanding my heavy eyelids. I have often thought that when I start to drift that there is perhaps more going on under the surface than above. The client may be unaware of this and probably is. She or he is talking about something they consider important. It just has no energy. Their words seem like the tip of an iceberg. The bigger part of what is going on is submerged. This is the power of the unconscious mind. It is there but we are of course, unconscious of it. Jung and his frenemy Freud were among the first to point this out.

One of the tasks of the psychotherapists is to help make the unconscious conscious. It is hoped that by this insight our clients can become more centered in the present and make better choices in the here and now. Psychotherapy often explores the details of growing up with the interest of an archeologist who searches for clues among the ruins of an ancient civilization. We dig and sift and every now in then find an old bone or pottery shard that may be a piece of the puzzle. Psychotherapy also relies at times on the interpretation of dreams, a sketchy science at best. The art of interpreting dreams is not unlike the art of reading tea leaves or tarot cards. Intuitive breakthroughs are possible though not predictable. Jung’s theory of synchronicity is at play here but that’s a subject for another day.

Let’s return to our well intentioned but sleepy therapist and our well intentioned but droning client. What is not being talked about or understood is the unlived life.

Talking about nothing is a contradiction in terms. Even at our most boring we are talking about something albeit of little significance to anyone but us. How do we talk about the unlived life? Our parents’ unlived lives hold the key.

Joseph Chilton Pearce in his controversial book about childhood, ‘The Magical Child,’ said we were born from a physical womb into a psychic womb. He says that when we were tiny our parents’ dreams were our movies. Their unconscious was palpable to us, more real than the fuzzy world our senses were beginning to grasp. It certainly makes sense that in order to survive we had to tune into the giants who ruled our world in order to make our way in it. And what if the contents of the unconscious minds of our parents that flooded their dreams was their unlived lives?

Psychotherapists are likely to go picking around the bones of our parents’ pasts to look for clues of how their unlived lives affected us. But what if there is another way to look at this that is potentially more profound. Instead of looking for what happened might we look for what didn’t happen? History might offer some clues in this arena.

If you factor in race, class, religion, gender and physical ability you might begin to see what didn’t happen. If your parents were born in the twenties as mine were all of these factors were far more defining of destiny than they are today. If you were Jewish or African American certain doors were closed to you. If you were a woman or from the working class opportunities were limited. Their world was not handicap accessible or close captioned. The harsh reality of these limitations were not only experienced in daily pursuits but were experienced in the imaginations of individuals, people who could not even imagine a better life. Add to these the unlived lives of generations prior and the psychological impact on the parents’ parents and you begin to see the insidious effects.

Someone can’t give you what they don’t have. An unblessed parent cannot bless their child. A parent with a constricted imagination can’t foster creativity in their offspring. The child of such a parent is disloyal if they demonstrate creativity. It is wondered aloud, where did that come from?

Sometimes an exceptional child is celebrated and a parent gets to live an unlived dream through the child. This can be dangerous particularly if the child does not want what the parent wants or can’t live up to their narcissistic expectations. Far more pervasive is the unconscious identification with the parent’s unlived lives.

The child of a parent who never knew security can’t seem to find it as an adult. Growing up with a parent who never knew love may render love elusive later in life.

To understand this better the interpretation of fairy tales was quite popular among psychotherapists especially those who were inspired by Jung. Unconscious struggles were reimagined in Sleeping Beauty and Jack and the Bean Stalk. Fairy tales were reread as instruction manuals for developing consciousness. They are open to seemingly endless interpretation.

Another way to look at the unlived life is to see it as space like space is seen in Chinese paintings. The objects in the paintings indicate space or spaciousness from which awareness emerges. It is not just a background like in much of Western figurative painting. It is central to what we behold. It contains possibility.

If we identify the unlived lives of the parents as pure possibility we may begin to understand our own unlived lives in the same way.

The unlived life seen differently is opportunity, an opening, an unfolding, the bud of a flower that has yet to bloom.


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