Late Adolescence and the Need for Meaning, Part II

April 29, 2021

In part one of this blog post, I noted that adolescents are prone to face questions of meaning as they enter adulthood. At such a time, they often look to us to see how we have negotiated these existential matters. Often, youth find that the adults in their lives are suffering from spiritual sickness due to a lack of meaning.

The Water of Life

The Grimm’s fairy tale “The Water of Life” tells the story of such a spiritual affliction. In the tale, the father’s spiritual thirst must be answered for by the son, who goes on a quest to find the water of life that will restore the father. So it is often true in life as well that when a young person sees a parent suffering from spiritual desiccation, he or she spends many years in search of transcendent values that can heal the parent.

There was once a King who had an illness, and no one believed that he would come out of it with his life. He had three sons who were much distressed about it, and went down into the palace-garden and wept. There they met an old man who inquired as to the cause of their grief. They told him that their father was so ill that he would most certainly die, for nothing seemed to cure him. Then the old man said, “I know of one more remedy, and that is the water of life; if he drinks of it he will become well again; but it is hard to find.”

So begins the story. One by one, each son sets off in turn to find the water of life. The oldest two sons are too preoccupied with narrow ambitions, and therefore become stuck. The youngest son has the humility to listen to the wisdom of lowly intuition, which appears to him in the form of an ugly dwarf. He alone finds the enchanted castle where the water of life is found.

Spiritual Emptiness

In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961), Jung describes his own experience of being an adolescent and realizing that his father was suffering to his core from an absence of meaning. Though a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church, Carl’s father Paul suffered from crippling religious doubts that he never explored or engaged. Young Carl gradually realized that the faith professed by his father was in fact empty and meaningless, and failed to sustain the elder Jung. As in the fairy tale, this awareness of his father’s suffering set the young man a task that would define his life’s work. C.G. Jung’s psychology addresses itself above all else to this question of meaning, and is in this sense an answer to and redemption of his father’s sickness.

What do our adolescents see when they look to us for meaning? Perhaps we have come to terms with our life. We find our existence meaningful and we are at peace with ourselves, but our children see our lives as lacking in intensity, adventure, or purpose. They will need their own quest, and we can set them off on it with the detachment that comes with wisdom. (This is the scenario depicted in the Cat Stevens song “Father and Son.”)

Looking for Meaning at Midlife

But what if we are thirsting after an abiding sense of purpose? We may have abandoned ourselves to materialistic acquisition or egoistic ambitions. We may have allowed ourselves to live through our children, needing them to succeed and be happy for our sakes. Or we may live in the past, content only when recalling a time when our life spread before us with promise. C. G Jung realized as a college freshman that his father’s life had stopped moving forward upon the elder Jung’s graduation from university. “Once upon a time he too had been an enthusiastic student in his first year, as I was now; the world had opened out for him, as it was doing for me; the infinite treasures of knowledge had spread before him, as now before me. How can it have happened that everything was blighted for him, had turned to sourness and bitterness?” (p. 95).

If we have avoided coming to terms with meaning in our own lives – or have lost touch with that which once sustained us – seeing this reflected to us by our children can be an opportunity to address our spiritual thirst. As we release our children to their fate, we have a chance to renew our connection with the water of life as we enter midlife.

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