Universal Quest

“A chapter in Jung’s book (Modern Man in Search of a Soul) mentions physical and psychic transformations that usually come up between the ages of 35 and 40. After this age, if I understand well, he says that people are exposed to bigger changes than before that they meet with already diminished perceptive capacities resulted from the way life had been previously engaged:

‘The worst of it all is that intelligent and cultivated people have these leanings without even knowing of the possibility of such transformations. Wholly unprepared, they embark upon the second half of life. Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life? No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve.’

Maybe glimpses of such education are available here, for instance, in the noticing of this subtle distinction of (artfully) acknowledging parts of ourselves that have been kept hidden, without losing sight that ‘it is the process of choosing from ‘one’s superior self’ or grander vision of life that allows for and makes possible evolution.'”

Carl Jung had a particular gift for isolating and magnifying this transition you mention in one’s 30s and 40s, the beginning of “the afternoon of life.” That is a time when one should have the basics of personal and social security in place, what he has described as the healthy development of the ego as a means to negotiate the practical necessities of living. Like building a frame and stretching and attaching the canvas before taking on the actual painting. It is at this point that one then has to decide what to do about that – though this can come earlier or later in life – as other impulses, perceptions, and callings gradually but relentlessly impose themselves. “Our truths and ideals” begin to feel and look different as our experience of the world expands. And perhaps there is an increasing sense that The Game of Life involves something other or something more.

Jung has written, “I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.” (Let me reword that for those more familiar with social media and phone text communications: Of my hundreds of patients over 35, all of them had the problem of not finding a religious outlook on life.)

The origin of religious: “reverence, obligation.” Or perhaps we could say reverent obligation. That is to say, a deeper, more meaningful, and encompassing purpose for the talents one already has.

I’d go a step further in saying that someone who does not make this transition is cheating life, and oneself, and will pay for it if they do not stop playing the previous game – using Jung’s terminology – of trying to satisfy the ego’s ambitions. It’s in one’s 30s and 40s that this usually becomes conscious, a kind of, “Hey, you have whatever you have, now let’s get on with it: paint the painting.” This is like the volume control of one’s intuitive conscience slowly but surely, magically even, turning up of its own accord, and it can be disturbing when the voice with that nagging “Hey…” begins to encroach on one’s previously constructed plans (or lack of them).

The idea of cultivating character within all this is “finding a religious outlook on life.” Not a religion; a religious outlook. Primarily, that involves a keen recognition of the need to move toward the study, practice, and expression of “the superior self”: one’s intrinsic values and deeper inspirations as they relate to a larger whole, a grander world, beyond oneself. That recognition, if acted upon, begins to erode the enticements of material, social and economic pursuits – buying and selling in the marketplaces of all kinds. This in turn begins to free us from “the trends of conformity…a mirror of what we think others want us to be” that the marketplaces demand. One way to describe that is “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” – the search that someone mentioned in response to the previous post; not the book but the idea.

The advantage of taking on such a universal quest of cultivating great character – Socrates’ “greatest improvement of the soul” – is that it transcends yet does not oppose any faith, belief, program, or system. Any given moment or situation allows for “painting” in the sense of bringing one’s superior presence, qualities, and skills into it with the express intent of betterment for someone or something. Indeed, one could say that it is this universal quest of character cultivation that binds together, and is at the heart of, every faith, belief, program, and system. One does not develop a character trait, such as authenticity or integrity, just to own it and gain from it, but because it allows one to paint more effectively on the canvas of one’s life. As such, it can be practiced anywhere at any time by anyone, in complete anonymity.

The timeframe you mention of one’s 30s and 40s is a unique period of opportunity so as to not drag certain unnecessary sufferings into the next decades of one’s life. One should have by then matured enough – largely through questioning more thoroughly “the false presupposition that our {past} truths and ideals will serve” – to realize that The Game has changed and that we must, too.

Jung was certainly not the first to recognize the need for a contextual transition in our lives. But he did help to hone in on these “physical and psychic transformations” you’ve mentioned that lead to age-appropriate “leanings without even knowing of the possibility of such transformations.” Art, poetry, philosophy, literature, and music of all kinds have pointed this way over millennia. Here’s one recent version that hopefully provides some appropriate ambient music and clues for how to handle it all; its title being an excellent character trait to develop early on, as it will simplify and make more enjoyable the universal quest :

Images of a medieval mosaic; artist unknown


  1. R. says:

    I have very much enjoyed this grand mosaic you have diligently put together here. I’m also slightly intimidated by the size and complexities of the subject yet there are very practical things we can all do with our spiritual disciplines.
    I do like this link you make between a man searching for his soul and cultivating great character for what is a man if he has no soul? Shouldn’t this quest be a “reverent obligation”?
    I was also particularly happy to reconnect with the wonderful Wade Davis and his Ted talk which is fantastic and a good reminder that there are so many other ways to go about creating our life. Also your clear explanation of the 5 intrinsic values makes total sense, just reading it makes me feel whole, it is really great to see this so well articulated in words.
    It seems to me that tribe people have a much better understanding of all those things and that our modern society has mostly lost the sense of the sacred or true priorities. You have constantly provided a space here and elsewhere where we can safely (and with fun) reconnect with the deeper and more meaningful parts of ourselves providing what I would call a “soul life sanctuary” for us all and I’m very grateful for your gift.
    You will now excuse me as I have to urgently go and carry on with my “sweet disposition” painting before it dries out…

    1. Thank you for writing in. Yes, as you say, the subject can be intimidating, especially as we look more carefully into the various related disciplines as presented in that “Introduction” I linked on my post. I’m not directly suggesting that anyone should follow any of those directions: I added that article specifically because it gives a fairly unbiased and well-researched sense of what underlies and connects different faiths, beliefs, programs and systems. Or, as they say in that article: “…habits, practices, and experiences that are designed to develop, grow, and strengthen certain qualities of spirit — to build the “muscles” of one’s character and expand the breadth of one’s inner life.”

      But I also think that character cultivation is more inclusive (and simpler) than the spiritual disciplines often suggest. For example, everyone – even those opposed to or uninterested in any form of spirituality or inner development – still needs qualities such as patience, dedication and open-mindedness to advance in even the simplest quest, like getting a job or finding and keeping a friend. In this way, it is universal, even if we are completely unconscious of it.

      Wade Davis is an underrated master. I explain why here if you have the time… https://darrellcalkinspublications.com/2015/04/15/27-may-2015/
      And here’s more of his work if you’re interested… https://daviswade.com/speaking

  2. Sam says:

    Thank you for these last three posts…
    When I got to the paragraph in this last post that began with the words; “The advantage of taking on such a universal quest of cultivating great character…”, that whole paragraph was tremendously uplifting, moving me away from any thoughts that this was something for me, my attention went to compassion and who and what we love, care for and live for… what a relief, as if shackles have been removed.
    Thank you for “Sweet Disposition” … it’s so perfect…

  3. R. says:

    Thank you for the clarification about the universal aspect of the quest, you make an excellent point and I’m looking forward to spending more time with Wade Davis too.
    I absolutely love this stunning and colourful picture of those men here:

  4. Mihai Tudorascu says:

    The enticements (material, social, economic pursuits) you mention do have a seductive pull. Especially when being constantly reinforced by most people around me and more subtly by most people I come into contact with. There is a need for this kind of direct reminders from those who have studied, practiced and expressed their “intrinsic values and deeper inspirations” long enough to sense their detachment from the pursuit at various levels. Yet information seems to be abundant and accessible. When I choose to search and engage it with some imagination (maybe as when picturing myself joining Jung’s conversation with Pueblo chief Mountain Lake) it brings a little more space and these reminders can be inwardly generated as well, with a unique kind of sweet satisfaction in the end.
    This article is a beautiful, rich painting of a process that seems simple and happens naturally if the conditions allow it. I perceive these conditions mainly to point towards choice. Choosing to spend time on the study, practice and expression of my own values and deeper inspirations rather than on owning things, being liked and acknowledged for foreign values that are generally accepted in society. And, now that some attention went towards the differentiation, that seem to cost more resources to enact with little enjoyment in the process.
    As you say, the choice can be practiced anywhere, for instance when deciding to temporarily put everything away and give the attention to an enjoyable article which keeps unfolding new elements the more it is engaged. Making it the current part of the quest.

  5. Guy says:

    Similar to Jung’s observations, it is also mainly between the ages of 35 and 40 that people will begin to experience mournings over the loss of deceased relatives, family members and close friends. Then they might begin to face the emptiness of their existence, their own finitudes and might start asking the right questions. These mournings create a soft landing towards one’s core values. ( If one has attended a friend’s funeral, it is interesting to note that most of the attendees are more themselves and more present as if death loosen up the masks of identity and bring human values to the surface.) This is a great barometer to keep death close to us all the time, as it will help one stay on track of its own aspirations and core values ( “Our truths and ideals” ) despite outside misleading influences.

    “Indeed, one could say that it is this universal quest of character cultivation that “binds together”, and is at the heart of, every faith, belief, program and system.” … I find this most relevant above all on this page.

  6. Thank you, gentlemen, for your cohesive, thoughtful additions to these considerations. I especially appreciate all that added attention and care that obviously went into crafting your insights. Particularly likable phrases that have stayed with me: “a soft landing towards one’s core values,” and “a larger more accelerated Self with noble authority.” These ring true not only for their sharpness of imagery but also for their poetic evocations.

    Given the significance of the challenge, “What a relief, as if shackles have been removed,” is a heartening note to find among these comments. Yes, the quest is meant to provide more freedom, inwardly and outwardly (that’s really the point of it all). Sometimes when we’re looking at what needs to be adjusted or changed we need to drum up some courage. Like for all noble adventures.

  7. Judith Jecmen says:

    The last two rich and important posts lead us perfectly into Jung, transformation and evolution. Being weary of unsatisfying “frothy” (an apt adjective) experiences, as I read about meeting significant unexpected changes later in life — when we already have “diminished perceptive capacities” resulting from the way life has been engaged — my heart was pierced and I felt I couldn’t breathe (let alone continue to read further right then). Aw, the lack of Faith, one of my too frequent shortcomings/sins. Gratefully, the full post, related videos and texts (and the comments/conversations) presented a magnificent discussion and detailed guidelines for developing a superior self, a grander vision of life and the ultimate reason, lest we forget the ultimate reason why.
    What resonated deeply with me was we cheat life if we do not use our talents fully, if we do not make the transition from egoism and away from the loud, unceasing, pull of material, social and economic concerns omnipresent, that the study, practice and expression of our superior self can be done anywhere and anytime. I am disciplined about physical exercise and breathing, yet daily scheduling the practice of expanding my inner life and developing a deeper reverence for life should be as or more important. Revisiting Wade Davis and his indigenous people beautifully illustrates their reverence for the natural world, being a different human being and other possibilities in life.
    The discussion of the intrinsic values and essential yearnings of all people was nicely layered into this gorgeous conversation. A special treat was Sweet Disposition which made me again want to try harder to develop one.
    Thank you for this blog. It is truly a masterpiece.

  8. Mihai Tudorascu says:

    Following a few of the resources presented here, opened up a wealth of information from individuals who have pursued their inspirations (creating their own religion in a sense) and made their knowledge accessible.

    I would mention three things that seem like a worthy addition to our conversation:

    1. Two quotes from Wade Davis’ interview “Give your destiny time to find you”:

    “The ultimate creative challenge is not the books you write, the songs you write, the performances you do, the business deals you cut. The ultimate creative challenge is to be the architect of your own life […] you’ve made every single choice, you may have not made the right choice always but you owned all those choices and that is the roadmap to contentment in old age. Bitterness invariably comes to those who look back at on a long line of choices imposed by the society, their families, their peers or their own internal pressures and lack of fortitude.”

    “…that every culture has something to say. That the world into which you were born is just one model of reality. That the other people aren’t failed attempts at being you.“

    2. Wade Davis’ article The Unraveling of America – How Covid19 signals the end of the American era

    3. The video “Life as a Quest – The Antidote to a Wasted Existence” from the Academy of Ideas

    1. Sorry I didn’t come back to this earlier…your addition of that Davis quote, “a long line of choices imposed by the society, their families, their peers or their own internal pressures and lack of fortitude.” I think he’s spot on with this. But the real issue is one not seeing that this is so; that is, believing it applies to someone else and not realizing that their choices have in fact been virtually exclusively motivated by these factors. It’s not so much that those choices were imposed but that the individual did not find a higher or more personally significant motivation, so they fell back on the uncreative options commonly promoted. In terms of a turning point, as suggested in this post (and by Jung and Davis), if one does not make that pivot to something much more in alignment with one’s deepest longings and talents – and do the necessary (mostly internal) research and enter into some kind of conversation to find those – the result is a completely unremarkable, unfulfilling and ineffective existence that inevitably produces – using the descriptions of these authors here – bitterness and neurosis. I’d add crippling regret, as well. Thank you for doing your own homework to bring these reflections into the fold here.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Mihai for the above sharings. I especially treasured the “Life as a Quest” audio, following knowledge and beauty, really seeing beauty. Never did “danger” seem so compelling. And of course “Life without music would be a mistake”.

  10. J. R. says:

    I’ve been weighing my words for days now in response to this post. In doing so, I realize its magnitude; there is no simple response to the great question at its center – one that calls the listener to a lifetime of deep consideration, refinement and soul searching.

    The comments in this thread are rich food for thought and many are above my head (for now), and at least I’d like to express my sincere thanks for the graduate school course in motion…

    “…are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life? No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life…”

    Yes, point thoroughly taken! I cannot think of a modern, contemporary society involving masses of people that truly offers an education or support system of this kind, although it’s desperately needed… and the work undertaken here to provide a version of it is very valuable.

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