“Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” (Simon and Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence)
It is sometimes said that we are creatures of habit. This is no less true of our thoughts than of our behaviors. We can become so accustomed to a certain identity and self-concept, to a particular view of life and the world, that new ways of seeing–and being–have a hard time breaking through. Our conscious mind defines and creates reality more than we often realize. The ego is a filter, and frequently an imposing one.
Previous articles in this series have shown how the psyche utilizes our illnesses and body symptoms to crack through the confines of our conscious mind. For some people certain mental and physical illnesses may even communicate the powerful directive, “Change, or die.” Depending on the importance of an issue, the psyche may give us the option to die symbolically (that is, undergo a transformation in how we approach life), or die literally. Either way, we end up in a different world.
In the second half of life the imperative to understand and approach the world in new ways grows especially strong. Having “mastered” the challenges of the outer world, the psyche presses for our deepened awareness and adaptation to the inner world—the soul, symbols, and a hungry spirituality. And it seems that an intellectual and conceptual knowledge will not suffice. The psyche wants us to have an experiential and dynamic relationship to the spiritual core of our being, for it is from here that the deeper values and meaning of life flow.
Consider the declines in hearing and vision which often accompany advanced age. We usually attribute such changes to the “luck” of our genetics, our lifestyle, and various “environmental insults” sustained over the years. We often draw the conclusion that our body is just “wearing out.” We get hearing aids to help us hear, or undergo laser surgery to remove our cataracts and then move on with our lives. Such are the gifts of modern medicine and technology, and we are rightly grateful for them.
But the gain that comes from the restoration of certain abilities can also come at a loss if the meaning connected to their decline is not appreciated. That is, if we have not learned from and grown through the illness. From the perspective of Jungian psychology, there is a goal, or teleology, behind our symptoms. Our sensory declines are not just losses, not simply the body wearing out. They can also be an opportunity for growth and expansion of the personality.
Our vision and hearing keep us attuned and connected to the outer world. They allow us to communicate, to stay involved, and stay informed of life around us. They make it much easier to live independently and to keep doing the things we like to do. Simply put, they allow us to remain rooted in the worldview and lifepath to which we are accustomed. But when we are unable to effectively see or hear our attention is forced inward. Our sight is invited to become “in-sight.” We are prompted to explore the spontaneous images that compose our dreams, memories, and imagination. And in hearing impairment we are challenged to more fully experience the voice of our inner self, the soul, or God. From a causal or materialistic perspective, the loss of sight or hearing is not given much meaning. They are viewed as impediments to be fixed. From the perspective of depth psychology, they can be an invitation to another, more fundamental level of reality.
Does this mean that if we are losing our sight or hearing that we should just let that physical process complete itself? Probably not. But what it could mean is that we should give more attention to the inner world and the realm of the soul. Perhaps we need to open our eyes and ears to a level of being beyond the consensual reality of society. For some people this might mean paying more attention to their dreams. It could mean starting a journal, or perhaps writing an autobiography. Others may find a deeper connection to their inner world through contemplation, meditation, or prayer. Some may be drawn to writing poetry, songs, or painting the spontaneous images that arise from the unconscious. In addition, the hearing impaired person may be challenged to pay less attention to the content and “logic” of what people say, and more attention to the feelings and symbolism behind what is said. Perhaps life is asking them to hear more with the heart, with a decreased emphasis on the mind.
Of course, the meaning, or purposive goal, behind any illness will vary from one person to the next. Generally speaking, however, most illnesses would impart a shift—subtle or bold—in the way we define ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Hearing and vision loss, in particular, may remind us of the truth that in darkness and silence we are often most receptive to the voice and values of our deepest self.