Ironic, but one of the most intimate acts of our body is death. So beautiful appeared my death—knowing who then I would kiss,
I died a thousand times before I died. “Die before you die,” said the Prophet Muhammad. Have wings that feared ever touched the Sun? I was born when all I once feared—I could love.
~ Rabia Al Basri, Sufi poet
Carl Jung wrote, “When death confronts us, life always seems like a downward flow or like a clock that has been wound up and whose eventual “running down” is taken for granted.”1 In the year that has passed since my father’s death, I’ve experienced this sense of the clock running down. He was 67 years old, 30 years older than me, and the idea that half of my life might be over gave me pause about how I was spending my days. Along these lines, Jung continued:
When an aging person secretly shudders and is even mortally afraid at the thought that his reasonable expectation of life now amounts to only so many years, then we are painfully reminded of certain feelings within our own breast; we look away and turn the conversation to some other topic.1
Of this hesitancy to look at death, poet John O’Donohue wrote, “Though death is the most powerful and ultimate experience in one’s life, our culture goes to great pains to deny its presence…the rhythm of death in life is rarely acknowledged.”2 However, acknowledging, accepting, and even developing a relationship with death can help one to live a fuller, more vibrant life.
Jung suggested that the psyche might have a continued existence beyond death, “that it isn’t entirely confined to space and time…to that extent, the psyche is not submitted to those laws and that means a practical continuation of life, of a sort of psychical existence beyond time and space.”3 However, despite any hints about an afterlife, death remains a mystery. In order to cope with that mystery, Jung wrote that a person “ought to have a myth about death, for reason shows him nothing but the dark pit into which he is descending.”4 Jung viewed death as “an archetype, rich in secret life, which seeks to add itself to our own individual life in order to make it whole.”4 From this perspective, “symbols and images of death may be understood in terms of their significance and meaning for life, while experiences and intimations of life need to be construed as leading towards death.”5 Seen this way, life and death become companions, and equal parts of a complete human existence.
Accepting death as a part of life can help a person to cope with various forms of transition. “Life is an ocean with rising and falling tides. This means death is always implicit in it.”6 From this perspective, all changes in life can be seen as small deaths along the way, and turning toward the element of death that is inherent in all transitions can provide a means of overcoming fear. “To continually transfigure the faces of your own death ensures that, at the end of life, your physical death will be no stranger, robbing you against your will of the life that you have had.”2 Becoming familiar with death as a part of life can transform this archetype from a frightening adversary to a guide who can help one find courage in walking their individual path:
Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, ‘I haven’t touched you yet.’7
The freedom and peace that come from creating a relationship with death can open the way for new possibilities, as well as greater self-expression and authenticity. “Masquerading behind the face of your physical death is the image and presence of your deepest self, which is waiting to embrace and meet you.”2 Released from the fear of death, one is able to live a fuller life and pursue their highest potential. Jungian analyst Erel Shalit spoke of life as being like a candle—the candle will never live out its purpose if it is not lit. “Only a candle you don’t like will never burn out. To live your life fully means that the candle will burn out.”8 Creating a relationship with death can provide the courage needed to light the candle.
Far from being the frightening monster it is often portrayed as in Western culture; the archetype of death can be a friend and a guide. “If you learn not to be afraid of your death, then you realize that you do not need to fear anything else either.”2 Reimagined this way, death becomes a messenger who brings many gifts, including courage, a higher perspective, increased awareness, greater authenticity, and deeper love for ourselves and others. Thus, whether or not the psyche continues to exist after death, we will be able to face death as “a meeting with a life-long friend from the deepest side of [our] own nature,”2 secure in the knowledge that our lives have been well-lived.
Jung, C. G. “The soul and death.” In Feifel, H. (1959). The meaning of death. New York: Blakiston Division, McGraw-Hill.
O’Donohue, J. (2004). Anam ċara: A book of Celtic wisdom. New York: Harper Perennial.
“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
– C.G. Jung
My dad has always existed for me in the space between “here” and “gone.” He was always around, but only rarely has he been truly present in my life. In recent months this has been literalized as his health has taken a turn for the worst. He’s now in a nursing care facility, spending his most of his days apparently drifting in and out, only occasionally conscious or coherent, no longer who he was.
He graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, then worked for the State of Utah for 30 years. It was always clear how much he hated his job. He was miserable and bored, and my mom, my sister, and I seemed to exist only in the shadows of his suffering. When he retired, his health started deteriorating steadily. I feel it has to do with the shadows of unlived potential manifesting as illness.
I don’t know what my dad wanted to do with his psychology degree, but it occurred to me recently that he could have been an effective therapist. Seven years ago I was on a flight from Cairo to New York City that hit very bad weather. After circling the JFK airport for a tense and miserable hour, the flight was diverted to Dulles. In the midst of a panic attack (though I didn’t realize it at the time), I called my parents’ house and my dad answered. He listened to my story about the hellish flight, being trapped on the plane at Dulles for two hours before being allowed to leave and go through customs, and my fear of having to spend the night alone in the airport. He then told me to breathe, assured me that the airline was required by law to find me a flight back to Salt Lake City, and addressed my other concerns enough that I could function and get through the night. To this day, I’m still grateful for that.
“My own father took refuge in invalidism and lived very little of his potential. As a result of this, I feel I have two lives to cope with—my own and the unlived life of my father. This is a severe burden, but it can have creative dimensions if I take on this task consciously. Such things are possible only when we are old and mature enough to know what we are doing—though we do not usually have this kind of wisdom until we reach middle age” (p.35-36).
While I don’t qualify as middle-aged quite yet, my dad is 66, still relatively young in a time and place where people can live to their 90s and beyond. I wonder now what he could still do if circumstances were different. What might he have done earlier in life that would have brought him more joy and meaning? And through my career change, am I indeed taking on my dad’s unlived potential? Does it truly matter?
I don’t have any answers, and at this point, all I can do is focus on finding joy and meaning in my own life. In doing so, I intend to fulfill my own promise and honor myself by living my life to the fullest expression of my authenticity and potential. I want to ensure that no one, especially not me, ever ends up abandoned in my shadows.
Regardless of whether we have children, perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves and those around us is to seek that which truly helps us feel happy, fulfilled and whole, bravely walking the path that leads us to the highest expression of our true selves.
When I return home from traveling, my apartment always looks different. Intellectually I know that everything is just as I left it, but after being away, the most familiar place in the world to me seems “off” in some way, not how I remembered it. Maybe the shade of paint in the bedroom looks brighter somehow, I think. Or perhaps it’s the way the light from the kitchen window filters in across the table at this hour of day, a time when I’m not usually home. But as I roll my suitcase down the hallway, there’s an overwhelming feeling of alien unfamiliarity. Then I realize it’s me. I’m the element that’s been transformed during my time away.
This transformation is the best thing that could have happened to me. “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished,” Benjamin Franklin wrote. Change is constant and inevitable, and travel provides a positive, meaningful, and deeply rewarding way to embrace change. It’s also a lot of fun. Here are a few of the ways travel has changed me for the better.
Through contact with people I would not have met otherwise, I’ve developed a better understanding of myself.
The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote, “We meet ourselves time and time again in a thousand disguises on the path of life.” To me, this means that we learn about ourselves through our interactions with others. Traveling has allowed me to meet a variety of fascinating people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. In conversation with each of these strangers, some of whom became my friends, I’ve discovered shared interests, dreams, and goals, or common values. This has highlighted to me that we’re all very much the same at a fundamental level. I have learned something important from all of the friends I’ve made in my travels, especially one.
My first trip out of the US was to England when I was 25. I was traveling alone after a highly sheltered life spent entirely in Utah, where I’ve always felt like an alien amongst the local religious culture. Shy and insecure, I worried that I’d remain alone on my travels because no one would like me. But during my time in England, I met and fell in love with a man I’ll call James. Tall, handsome, charming, and a decade older than me, I was surprised to find out how much we had in common. Not only did he share my love of Star Trek and my loathing for the George W. Bush administration, he was passionate about travel, education, and art. We talked for hours that night, exchanging stories about our lives, and then spent as much time together as possible during my stay. When I returned home, we began a long distance relationship that lasted four years. This new type of relationship experience taught me to truly be ok on my own, how to give and receive love even when a partner isn’t by my side every day, and the importance of emotional honesty. James was also the first person who ever complimented me on my odd personality. When he told me, “You definitely march to the beat of your own drummer, and that’s a good thing,” my whole outlook changed. It was like I suddenly had permission to truly be myself, because for the first time, someone I loved had let me know that he accepted and loved me just as I was.
During our relationship, I often wondered how we could integrate our lives—how I would fit into his world or how he’d fit into mine, especially since he was so different than any other man I’d met. Then I realized that I wouldn’t want him to change to be like the other people in my life; that part of the reason why I loved him is because he was different from anyone else I’d ever known.
All of this came out of my interactions with someone I never would have known had I not left my familiar surroundings. Perhaps I could have learned the lessons of self-acceptance, loving others for their differences, and finding common ground across cultures some other way, but this was the perfect fit for me.
I have gained an understanding of what “home” truly is.
I was excited and a little scared to travel across the Atlantic for the first time. After spending so many years in the same place, the idea of being so far away from home was intimidating. Imagine my surprise when I immediately felt at home in the crowded, unfamiliar streets of London. I had a sense of déjà vu—something about the city felt deeply familiar, though I had never been there before. The feeling followed me to Oxford and Bath, Plymouth and Dover. I felt it so strongly in St. Ives that I never wanted to leave. It was waiting for me again any time I returned to England, and I also felt the same way as I traveled though Scotland and Ireland. It is the most at home I have ever felt anywhere, and mingled with that strange familiarity was a feeling of peace, a calm knowing that even though I was on the “other side of the world,” far away from what was familiar, no harm would come to me and everything would be all right. This has always turned out to be true.
I’m still unsure what was underlying that initial feeling of déjà vu and familiarity in an unfamiliar place, but I’d like to think it has something to do with trusting life—that because I had enough faith and courage to step out of my comfort zone, despite being introverted and anxious, something filled in the gaps in my experience and allowed me to adapt and be flexible enough to find peace in an unfamiliar place.
Through experiencing that adaptability in a way that I hadn’t before, I gained confidence. I was then able to travel to places much more unlike my country of origin with the knowledge that I’d be able to handle anything I encountered there as well. This confidence allowed me to feel safe and secure, even when I was wandering around lost in the hot, crowded streets of Cairo, while barely remembering enough Arabic to say “thank you.” After safely finding my way back to my hotel, I realized that I’d done so without getting caught up in the feelings of panic that I’d experienced in similar situations. This gave me even greater confidence and trust in myself, as I realized that I’ll always be able to navigate any situation I’m presented with.
To me, that’s what feeling at “home” is really about—being able to trust and have faith in myself and my capabilities regardless of the circumstances. If I have enough trust and faith in myself to confidently face and be present with whatever is happening right now, anywhere can feel like home.
I have learned to appreciate life’s mysteries.
Could there be something more to the experiences of familiarity I had while wandering through unfamiliar cities in the UK and Ireland? Perhaps memories of past lives spent in those places? Or possibly epigenetic memories from my English, Scottish, and Irish ancestors, encoded into my DNA and activated by walking down the streets where they may have walked? Maybe I’ll never know, and I’m ok with that. It’s fun to speculate and imagine.
I used to prefer thinking that it was possible to have all the answers, but travel has opened my mind to life’s mysteries. The more I experience of the world, the more I realize how much I don’t know. This is exciting because I love to learn new things—it’s become a huge part of what makes life interesting and worthwhile for me. I find peace in knowing that there will always be more to learn.
In the darkness and shadow of mystery, there is power and magic. During my time in Egypt I took a cruise down the Nile. One evening, just before sunset, the ship’s crew turned off the engines, lights, and music, and we all gathered on the top deck and waited. At dusk, the hazy gray sky burned yellow and orange as the sun sank into the glistening silver river. Away from any city lights, the palm trees and desert sand dissolved into the eerie blackness of 5,000 years ago, and it was almost as if I could feel the presence of Isis and Osiris, watching us from the riverbank. All was still and silent, but only for a few minutes. The deck lights came back on and the party resumed. Through enjoying the contrast of light and dark, knowledge and mystery, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for all the subtle forms of beauty and wonder in the world.
I have come to embrace the bittersweet truth that nothing lasts.
Just as the experience of dark, silent mystery on the Nile lasted only a short time before the lights and music returned, all things eventually end. Travel experiences, relationships, jobs, and anything else will come to some kind of close, whether we’re ready or not, and it’s ok to feel sad about that. After an amazing trip to Ireland, I cried for almost the entire flight back to the US because I didn’t want to leave. Afterward, I felt better and could look back with joy on the wonderful experiences I’d had and new friends I’d made there.
Could it be that part of the reason we fear change, particularly endings, is because we’re afraid of the strong emotions these experiences evoke within us? If so, there’s really nothing to fear. Grief, sadness, and other feelings are only temporary states, like everything else. By choosing to be present with them and experience them fully, they can simply pass through us and be released, replaced by something else. Such strong emotions, even the “negative” ones, add depth and color to our experiences. If we allow for change and endings, letting ourselves be vulnerable enough to experience all of the feelings associated, we grow so much braver and stronger, with improved capacity and confidence to handle anything life throws at us. We also develop greater empathy for others.
Endings will always come, so it is best to simply embrace the change. I’ve learned that the most helpful way to do this is to hold something close, feeling as much appreciation for it as possible while I have it, and then let it go with gratitude when the time comes. There will always be a way to find closure. Remember James, my long-distance love from England? He ended our relationship with no explanation, and I was devastated. The lack of closure I felt left me confused and deeply depressed for several years, but I pushed those feelings aside and tried to distract myself by becoming a workaholic, rarely leaving my home for anything else, even to travel.
Denying myself one of my passions only made things worse, and life finally forced me to deal with my feelings about the situation. When I had done so enough to get back out into the world, I visited England again, nearly a decade after my first time outside of the US. After a miserable ride on the Tube with my suitcase during rush hour, I got off at the stop near my hotel in London and began looking for the address in my itinerary. I had just spotted the hotel when across the street I saw a familiar figure, tall and handsome, instantly recognizable. Our eyes met, and I lifted my hand to wave but he quickly turned and hurried in the opposite direction, disappearing around a corner before I could cross the street. Was it James? Yes, most definitely. How is that possible? One of life’s mysteries. Something always fills in the gaps. The best thing about endings is that they open us up to new beginnings.
These are just a few ways that travel has changed, healed, and saved me. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote, “The world is a great book, of which they that never stir from home read only a page.” Each page I’ve read, whether in the UK, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Ireland, or anywhere else, has transformed me into a better version of myself.
“We shall not cease from exploration,” TS Eliot wrote, “and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” My exploration of the world through travel has always opened me to greater self-knowledge and understanding, with each round of exploration helping me to feel more whole in some way.