“There is no pit you cannot climb out of provided you make the right effort at the right place… do the next thing with diligence and devotion.”

Carl Jung on How to Live

Recent seasons have given me the opportunity to think about how improbable my life has been. It was not planned, but lived.

Our anxiety is relieved when we see the path to our destination.

But the hardest reality to bear is that death is the only horizon, with numberless ways to get there — none replicable, all uncertain in their route, all only certain to arrive. There are many beautiful life types. Each and every one, even those that seem to be fully realized, is filled with doubts and confusion. Uncertainty costs beauty. Integrity is the only way to navigate the terrain of uncertainty, which forms the basis of every life.

We can only walk one intuitively correct step after another until, stopping to take our breaths, we see a pathway. If we are lucky, and if we’re willing to accept the unknown, this is our unique path. It has not been mapped out by any of our younger anxious selves.

The recovery community has a shorthand for keeping this at the center of awareness in times of inner tumult: “Do the next right thing.” The concept, in fact, originated two years before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, in a lucid and largehearted letter Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (July 26, 1875–June 6, 1961) wrote to an anonymous correspondent, included in Selected Letters of C.G. Jung, 1909–1961 (public library).

Carl Jung

Jung replied to a young woman on December 15, 1933 who asked for his advice about how to live. Two generations after the young Nietzsche admonished that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Jung writes:

Dear Frau V.,

Because you are curious to find out how, your questions will not be answered. It is importantIt is possible to live. You are the only one who lives. Can. No one, single path is best for everyone. If that’s what you want you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what. Furthermore, this is the same way that most of humanity follows. If you are determined to follow your own path, this is not the right way. It is the one you choose. This is because there is no way that you can predict or know beforehand. The way you create is what you decide. You will be most confident and secure if you do what is necessary. It is no use to try to figure out how to live your life. Then you realize that it is impossible to know everything, so you quietly perform the most important thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what this is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. If you believe that conviction is the most important thing you can do, it will be meaningful. Sincere regards and best wishes

Thank you very much.

C.G. Jung

Jung wrote a similar gesture of wisdom and generosity two months later to an individual who was suffering in extreme anxiety and distress and felt that he had simply mislived his own life. Jung writes:

Dear Mr. N.

With just a few words, nobody can make a life better. There is no place you won’t be able to climb out of if you just put your efforts in the right places.
When one is in a mess like you are, one has no right any more to worry about the idiocy of one’s own psychology, but must do the next thing with diligence and devotion and earn the goodwill of others. You will be able to find your self in every small thing that you do. [Everyone has]To do it hard, but always the right way.

You are truly my friend.

C.G. Jung

Complement with a poignant, poetic lens on how to live and how to die and Darwin’s deathbed reflection on what makes life worth living, then revisit Jung on life and death, his rare BBC interview about human nature, and the story of how he and his improbable physicist friend Wolfgang Pauli invented the concept of synchronicity.

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