The Essential Thing Is the Opus


The Raven’s Gift

I observe myself in the stillness of Bollingen and with all my experience of nearly eight decades must admit that I have found no rounded answer to myself. I am just as much in doubt about myself as before, the more so the more I try to say something definite. It is as though familiarity with oneself alienated one from oneself still further. ~C.G.Jung, Letter to Aniela Jaffe, Bollingen, 6 April 1954, Letters, Vol II, p. 163.

[L]et no day pass without humbly remembering that everything still has to be learned. ~C.G.Jung The psychology of the transference (1946), CW 16, par. 464.

Several of my recent posts have been about going through a troubling phase of uncertainty. Let me reassure you.  I am the most fortunate of women. My health is good, I’ve lived in the same town for 50 years, the same house for 40 years, and traveled the world. I’m married to the same man I married at the age of 21. I still love him and he loves me. My children and grandchildren are well and happy. I’ve had challenging and infinitely rewarding work for 30 years now with some satisfying success, and there’s still no end in sight.

But I have a problem. My problem is that I’m hopelessly introspective and scrupulous. I’m sensitive to the slightest change in my inner world. I also observe my thoughts and behavior in the outer world closely and subject myself to relentless scrutiny, criticism, judgment, and self-doubt. I am a problem to myself. I always have been.

Every interaction with another person, everything I say, write, do, and even think goes under my mind’s microscope. And with every new insight or lowering of my defenses, my attitudes toward myself and others change. My feelings and emotions change. My understanding of myself changes. There’s no consistency. I can’t even be counted on to have the same opinions or the same reaction to you tomorrow as I have today!

I keep thinking that if I live long enough and work hard enough, one day I’ll know who I am, come to terms with myself, and be at peace. But despite all my inner work, it hasn’t happened. So I keep wondering, what on earth is wrong with me?  Why this recurring discomfort? When will it stop? When will I arrive?

Arrive? Ha! I remember with great embarrassment a conversation I had with a dear friend about 25 years ago. We were talking about how much psychological and spiritual growth we’d both undergone. By that time I had experienced two life-changing spiritual epiphanies and earned my doctorate degree. I’d studied Jungian psychology and worked on my dreams for about five years, meditated and practiced yoga for about three of those years, and written two books.

I was feeling so much better about myself and my life than I had ever felt before that I believed I probably knew about as much about myself as there was to know. Surely I must be getting close to being “enlightened.”  When I naively said as much to Ann, she smiled fondly and said something noncommittal like, “Oh, do you? Hmm,” and nodded understandingly.

Something in me felt like a child being patted on the head reassuringly by an older and infinitely wiser loving relative after saying something incredibly silly. Did she doubt me? I wondered why. What did she know that I didn’t? I think this is what she knew:

The goal is important only as an idea: the essential thing is the opus which leads to the goal: that is the goal of a lifetime. ~C.G. Jung The Psychology of the Transference (1946), CW 16 par. 400

Ann was a therapist who worked with a Jungian analyst for 20 years, and the wisest woman I knew. She had been working on her opus a lot longer than I had on mine, and she knew we both had a long road ahead of us. She knew it isn’t over until it’s over.

Last night I had a simple dream in which I’m walking hand-in-hand with a special, unknown man who has returned home after being away for a very long time. We’re heading for a vast grassy field dotted with fallen, rusted out planes, toward his plane. He’s a pilot and he’s going to take me up for a ride. I know that people died in those crashed planes. But I also know that he has taken excellent care of his plane and I can trust him. So I do.

My dream says I trust my animus, my spiritual guide, to lead me safely into an unknown future. I trust my dreams for sure, so I guess this means maybe I’m finally learning to trust myself too. I’ll never fully understand myself, never fully arrive, and probably always be a problem to myself. But I can trust my opus, no matter how different it may be from anyone else’s, without worrying that somehow I have failed.

Image Credit:  Art by Jake Baddeley

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18 Responses

  1. Hi Jeane, thank you as always for your fascinating article. Actually, I wrote a lot of words and wanted to finish it but pushed a wrong button and all were gone! Anyway, another try: when I read your article, it reminds me of a word by Dostoevsky that once said: you can never make human satisfied, if you give them a paradise to live, they will try to do something else, crime or whatsoever. of course it might not fit here exactly but I can understand your restlessness somehow as I have the similar feeling. My life may not have been running so satisfied as yours but I am happy now with what I have right now. The only problem is my perfectionism! And I am such a person who like rather be hungry than being full. I thought about it as I read that Jung’s quote above: the goal is important only as an idea. I believe that having wishes is much more important than to reach out the aim. I analyze myself permanently and with your help, I will understand me better. Have a wonderful day and stay safe.

    1. Dear Aladin,

      I am so sorry you’ve had so much trouble publishing your post today. The same thing happened to Susan. I’ll look into it as soon as possible.

      Your Dostoevsky comment does make sense, doesn’t it? Thank you very much for sharing it. It does fit and I think he must be right. I guess we’re a species that will always be reaching for the sun, moon, and stars. Look at how determined we are to get into outer space when we have plenty to work on right here! We always want to go upward and outward! I wonder what archetype it is that makes us that way. I don’t recall Jung ever writing anything about it, yet I think we all feel it. If anybody reading this knows, I’d sure like to hear from them.

      I’m glad to hear you’re happy with what you have right now. I feel the same. Yet, there’s also a small something in me that says, “it’s not enough.”

      Yes, perfectionism is a BIG problem. I know that all I really need to do is stay open and accept whatever form of otherness presents itself to me in the present moment, to allow it in, accept it as part of myself, and take the next step I have to take. Yet, as I say, it’s never enough and something in me always urges me forward. In itself, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Maybe it’s just the life instinct. Certainly that’s good, because it motivates us to keep growing into new and unknown spaces filled with potential that will end up being a blessing to our souls and others. But sometimes it’s not so good, for example when we castigate ourselves for not being good enough and then our lack of self-worth becomes an obstacle to growth. Such an odd dilemma. Such complex creatures we humans are.

      Thank you for writing, my brother self-analyzer! It’s nice to know I’m not alone!


      1. Much appreciated, sister of my soul. I might make another reminder of another Genius, Leonardo da Vinci; it’s said that he, in his dying bed uttered: there still is a lot of work undone!! Forever yous, Aladin

        1. Wow! Talk about intense! What a mind he must have had. I wonder what else he would have invented if he’d lived longer. Thank you for that fascinating bit of information. 😊

  2. I hope this comment goes through Jeanie, it got swallowed up … my original comment is completely lost! Your post spoke to me, thank you for it. Just this past Friday, my younger son David was the keynote speaker at his old senior school for prize giving and the matriculants (Michaelhouse, Balgowan, Natal). An honour and rather amazing since guest speakers are invariably captains of industry or such like. A few minutes into his speech, aimed at the school leavers, he put up 3 points that he was going to address. They were 1) It’s OK to not have everything figured out 2) Pursue the things that make you happy 3) The Process is the Prize. This last one fits in perfectly with your last quote of Jung’s ‘ .. the essential thing is the OPUS which leads to the goal: that is the goal of a lifetime’. We know only too well that our lives are meant to be an opus, and that we must answer our own call, which means work in living our lives with a degree or degrees of seriousness. Not forgetting those moments when we don’t have to be serious and can be light hearted!

    I am often beset by an aggravating inner animus which says have you done enough? More often I counter that niggle by saying and feeling, I do what I can but I’m focusing more on being – and being more active in loving and striving towards peace in this strange world that we live in.

    Your dream is lovely, thank you for sharing it. Men come to me in my dreams from time to time and when they’re helpful, I am so appreciative!

    Great post Jeanie thank you. Love, Susan

    1. Hi Susan,

      As you can see, your comment did go through. Aladin had the same problem this morning. This is the first time I remember this happening here. I’ll look into it.

      How proud you must be of David! I saw your fb post of him with the matriculants. I love his three points. Wow. He’s wise beyond his years, isn’t he? Yes, ‘the process is the prize’ is another great way of saying the same thing. In following up with Aladin’s comment above, I wonder what archetype it is that keeps pushing us toward the goal when we know in our hearts that it’s the process that counts. Is it the “doing” oriented, left-brained linear thinking of the Sage/Magician? It certainly doesn’t seem to be any of the feminine archetypes, like the Mediatrix or Beloved…. Hmmm. I must look into this. Feels like another blog post.

      I’m very appreciative of this man in this dream. As you suggest, the men in our dreams are not always helpful, but when they are it’s a blessing. This one was a blessing. It felt as if I’d always known and trusted him. So comforting.

      Thank you for writing, Susan. Love, Jeanie

  3. Hi Jeanie,

    What a wonderful dream, thank you for sharing it with us, one in which you feel your relationship with your animus deepen, and despite evidence to the contrary, you feel safe in his hands.

    My first thought is that the airfield reminds me of Anne Baring’s powerful dream about the iron structure on the moon. I wonder if there’s any connection or insight here for you? I wonder what planes, and indeed rust (iron oxide), and what they’re made from and what symbolic or alchemical meanings they might hold?

    Next, I wonder what is out-dated and no longer of any use especially as you write of ways that don’t serve? Interestingly, the thought of a “plane” graveyard comes to mind as we approach Halloween and enter the heart of the witch and the thinning of the veil at this time of the year, and perhaps at this time or phase of your life too?

    As a poet, with metaphorical sleeves rolled up working on a new poem, I can testify to the opus being the most important part too. Sometimes I wonder what I’ll do when they stop coming but I’m sure my animus will let me know! For never am I happier than when I’m trying to figure something out, from the inside out.

    “The process is the prize” Thanks for this gem Susan and well done to David! It’s kind of how I’ve been describing the “process of therapy” to my clients for the past twenty four years.

    Love and light, Deborah.

    1. Hi Deborah,

      Thank you so much for your associations. I’ve been researching some of the things you suggested, i.e. Anne Baring’s Powerful dream, iron oxide, the rusty metal, the thinning of the veil at this time of year and also at this phase of my life and made some very rich and meaningful connections. I wrote you a very long response only to have it disappear — the same thing happened to Aladin and Susan — when I clicked the Post Comment button. I’m not going to try to re-create it here now because it took me about an hour to write and I can’t spend that kind of time here now, but I want you to know that you’ve given me plenty of inspiring material to work on and I may put that all into a new post for next week!

      Now I’m going to stop while I’m ahead, copy what I’ve just written in case it gets lost again, and then try to respond to my other comments. Thank you so much for writing. You and my therapist friend Ann, who called this morning, have provided me with a richness of gems to mine for some time.

      Love, Jeanie

  4. Oh I resonate with your post.
    Re: The Opus, much in the spirit of Jung, I always grokked this quote by the Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan, valuing the journey over the ideal we strive towards.
    ‘The ideal is the means, its breaking is the goal.’
    I wish Hazrat Inayat Khan and Jung could have met in their lifetime.

    1. Hi Ashen,

      Somehow, I’m not surprised that you resonate with this post. 🙂 I sense you’re one who walks a similar path even though we’ve come at it from very different directions. ‘The ideal is the means, its breaking is the goal.’ Well that’s reassuring!! All those broken down rusted out planes that used to soar through the heavens in my dream would suggest I’m in the process of breaking the ideal! Wow. I love that. Thank you so much. This too may find its way into my next blog post….

      I wish Jung and Khan could have met too. Can you imagine how they could have inspired each other?

    1. Dear Lynnea, your gratitude and prayerful hands say it all. I’m so glad this was helpful. You’re so very welcome. Love, Jeanie

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