The End of the Line

Death and Dread in Psychoanalytic Process

Jenny had a nightmare.  

I was with a crowd and then suddenly everybody was gone.  I don’t know what happened, it was just nothing, and I screamed when I woke up.

Exploring her dread in session, Jenny realized how the crowd protected her like a blanket. She recognized how she clung to unhealthy relationships so as not to feel the isolation this dream was making her face.  When the crowd was gone she experienced the horror of the void.  Jenny was beginning to let the specter of death into her process.

Carl Jung identified two phases in human development that get separated by his notorious “mid-life crisis.”  The first half he defined as learning how to get ourselves into the world:  living skills, career, family, prestige, etc.  The second half, conversely, focuses on learning to leave the world. It’s important not to get hung up on when these phases literally shift.  Mid-life is not an age set in stone.  Some do not begin the second phase until a life threatening illness gets diagnosed. I’ve seen other begin to reckon seriously with the death question in their teens.  In general it can be observed that once the individual has established a set posture to carry through life, the malaise of a mid-life crisis sets in order to redirect the focus of libido, their life energy, into the second phase.

Death can enter the field of process in some subtle and deceptive ways.

“When people are subtly made to think about their own death, it immediately changes their behavior. In one study, judges who were given descriptions of prostitution arrests and then reminded of their own mortality set bail nine times higher than did those not similarly primed.” The End of the Road

Early narcissistic woundings that the accomplishments of the first half strive to address, come back with a vengeance in the second half.  Alterations in judgement and deep emotional dis-regulation manifest when mortality dominates process.  Levels of anxiety, dread and horror can exceed any previous experience.  While not speaking specifically about religion, Jung taught death challenges each of us to develop a set of individual religious attitudes to meet, process and transform these dark affects as we begin to approach the end of the line.

Author: Richard Reeve

I'm the Senior Director of Development at Panthera, a global conservation organization committed to stemming the population decline of cats in the wild. I enjoy rural living with my wife Judith and our two children in the Catskill Mountains of New York.