I included this exchange in my forthcoming Hemingway on Hemingway.
Legitimate Suffering and Mental Illness
Sunday, August 8, 2010, 5 AM. Just spent most of an hour posting [on my website] a couple of conversations from May…. It was interesting to read the pieces from May 24 and 25. I had forgotten that it was from Carl Jung that I first got the concept that Hemingway represented a complete man, that his great attractiveness to people stemmed from his wholeness. Obviously that didn’t prevent him from experiencing and ultimately succumbing to serious personality problems, but it does change the picture. All right, so here we go. Dr. Jung, I have been using a quotation of yours as a part of my signature in e-mails for some time, but only yesterday — at your prompting? — did it occur to me that I didn’t quite understand it. It rings true intuitively but it could do with some explanation. “The foundation of all mental illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering.” What is “legitimate suffering,” and for that matter what is mental illness, and how are they thus so intimately connected?
You have asked the question even though you are anxious. This is good. Always, when you meet an obstacle, push through it, beyond it, or it will surface again in a more difficult form. Challenges never get easier except sometimes as a result of prior failure leading to reduction of capacity — in which case they still are harder relative to the capacity one brings to them.
To understand the sentence, one needs to understand the definitions. Mental illness. Legitimate suffering. For that matter, unwillingness.
You have been told [by TGU, in the past] that there is no such thing, as such, as mental illness, but we will stick to common parlance. For our purposes, we may define it as the inability to
Wow! I see it, all at once! In connection to Hemingway! Sorry to interrupt, but it was so striking, to go from not understanding to understanding. Please, proceed.
Define mental illness as the inability to experience reality in an undistorted form. Define legitimate suffering as — for instance — bearing the knowledge of what one is, or what one has done. And define unwillingness as a conscious choice, become unconscious because repressed, to see in distorted fashion.
That is so simple, so obvious once said.
You will find that our readers find it less obvious, until we put into words the understanding that leapt mind to mind between us. However, it is true that some will be able to join in that intuitive communication, and thus will get it as you got it.
So, to plod. (I was Swiss, you know. We Swiss are great plodders.)
Ideally a mind experiencing a life does so with inputs open and understanding functioning without distortion, and in this way smoothly assimilates what occurs externally so as to experience it internally and thus come to greater consciousness of its own nature and limitations and possibilities. (By the way, those three words are restatements, one of the other. To know one’s nature is to know the others, and to know them is to know what one is fundamentally.)
This is the ideal. Of course it is rarely if ever approximated.
To the degree that one refuses to see one’s shadow side, one distorts one’s experience of reality. “It wasn’t me. It was circumstance. I was an innocent victim. He provoked me. Anyone would have reacted in the same way.”
Such distortion, if continued long enough and consistently enough, obviously results in the person becoming ever less able to respond appropriately to circumstances, because circumstances as reported to the conscious mind are reported in the distorted form required by the refusal to acknowledge and accept one’s own actions, motivations — ultimately, a part of one’s own character.
Yes, it jumped out at me when you began — Ernest Hemingway was not sufficiently aware of his shadow side, and therefore couldn’t acknowledge or often remember certain types of actions, and such actions — those that led him to break with friends, for example, or that led him to be unable to restrain his competitiveness — repeatedly had ill effects on his life. Yes, Ernest?
I don’t think Carl was quite finished.
No. Our friend is particularly enthusiastic today.
Let’s blame it on the coffee. I would never do something like interrupt. It wasn’t my fault! They made me do it! Anybody would have!
All right, we are smiling, but a little bit goes a long way. If you meant it, that would be a good example of the mechanism.
To continue the thread I was following, though it may be obvious, one can reach a point from which there can be no return, because incoming reality as perceived bears so little resemblance to incoming reality in and of its own nature.
Thus, Ernest had to blame certain situations on others because it would have become unbearably painful to admit to himself his own responsibility. That is the common way to understand the situation. However, in the way we are sketching out, we would rephrase it this way. Ernest’s person-group comprised such extremely disparate elements as to be held together largely by the fictions he told himself about who he was and what he was. He shaped himself to an ideal, and the price of that was disenfranchising parts of himself that didn’t measure up to the ideal.
He could not acknowledge them, and therefore he lost the ability to integrate them, and therefore they functioned suppressed until they exploded, then were suppressed again. A part of his conscious personality knew that the explosions occurred, but experienced them as autonomous — a primitive would have described them as evil spirits that had entered and taken him over — and therefore had extreme difficulty taking responsibility for what seemed to him not really his own doing.
Another part of his conscious personality remained unaware — as best it could! — that the explosion had taken place at all.
But this in turn caused further problems, for in the aftermath of an explosion one sees an altered situation, that has to be accounted for somehow. If ex-hypothesis one denies that an explosion took place at all, or denies at least that the explosion had anything to do with one’s own action or being — well, somebody has to be at fault! Find them!
Oh, I see the mechanisms, all right. And I suppose that few people who read this will fail to see it from personal experience.
You can see, then, that if this process is allowed to get too advanced, a person may wind up inside so elaborate a labyrinth as to be unable to return to clarity without trusted outside help. And the farther one has proceeded inside the labyrinth, the less able one will be to trust outside help of any kind. Carried sufficiently far, the only way out is via death and release, which thankfully is available to all.
But. If a person is willing to see the person-group as it exists — the disreputable characters as well as the saints; the bums as well as the hard workers; the drones and the dullards as well as the inspired creators — then there is hope, and health. For if one can hold an ideal while remembering that while in human form with human limitations we cannot attain (but can only approximate, or tend toward) ideals, then one still has a touchstone for conduct and aspiration, but one need not deliberately ignore the unavoidable shortcomings, nor be crushed by guilt nor overcome by hopelessness.
And it hurts to see what we really are rather than what we would rather be. Is that it?
Not everyone is mentally ill. Not everyone holds an ideal unattainably high, and suffers from the failure to attain the unattainable.
This should render my life more comprehensible. On the one hand you’re being told that I was an example of wholeness. On the other hand you’re seeing how unable I was to deal with certain themes that ran through my life, and you see how my life spun out of control. You tend to put too much blame on the alcohol. The cause is as Carl said — I couldn’t see myself or my life straight, and so I got farther and farther off course.
[CGJ] That isn’t quite right. You found it too painful to see the past as it had been, so you shrank from it and walled yourself off from incidental reminders as best you could. But your life — look at it now! — was not, objectively, something to shrink from realizing. And if you had seen yourself more accurately you would have seen those around you more accurately. It would have relieved the anxiety, the paranoia, the depression, it would have turned down the valve on the rage and the manic highs.
But it was all tied in with your idealization of yourself that was the means of creating yourself and holding yourself to your impossibly high standards of craftsmanship that you did largely achieve.
I can certainly see it. By holding yourself to a high enough standard, you can make it guaranteed that you are never going to do good enough or be good enough to satisfy yourself. Hence the bragging, hence the anxious competitiveness.
[CGJ:] And hence the need and the use to you of the Catholic Church, Ernest. Your critics don’t seem to understand the psychological importance to you of confession as a way of shedding guilt. But the structure of the Church “in our time” didn’t match with the rest of our world, so it wasn’t enough, and this without entering in to the question of the Church’s politics in Spain and elsewhere.
So, to wrap this up? For we have been going more than an hour.
I sum it up as I continually summed up situations. Do not judge another’s life. Judgment — condemnation — never liberates, it only oppresses, isolates, and condemns judge and judged alike. You never have the data. Ernest’s life cannot be understood as if it were a simple man’s, nor a man comprising a harmonious low-pressure collection of threads.
[EH] Yet my life must not be seen as a series of bad decisions or of unfortunate external circumstances, either. It was as I was, and if I had realized that consciously as I realized it unconsciously, I’d have had an easier time of it.
I thank you both. I think many people besides myself will find this helpful. But don’t think I don’t see manipulation when I experience it — at least once in a while!
We smile as well.