Carl Jung on How to Live and the Origin of “Do the Next Right Thing”
By Maria Popova
In recent seasons of being, I have had occasion to reflect on the utterly improbable trajectory of my life, plotted not by planning but by living.
We long to be given the next step and the route to the horizon, allaying our anxiety with the illusion of a destination somewhere beyond the vista of our present life.
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. This is why there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives. And this is why each and every one of them, even the most seemingly actualized, trembles with a staggering degree of doubt and confusion. Uncertainty is the price of beauty, and integrity the only compass for the territory of uncertainty that constitutes the landmass of any given life.
And so the best we can do is walk step by next intuitively right step until one day, pausing to catch our breath, we turn around and gasp at a path. If we have been lucky enough, if we have been willing enough to face the uncertainty, it is our own singular path, unplotted by our anxious younger selves, untrodden by anyone else.
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).
On December 15, 1933, Jung responded to a woman who had asked his guidance on, quite simply, 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.,
Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how one ought to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one. If that’s what you want you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what. Moreover this way fits in with the average way of mankind in general. But if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other. If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live. And then you know, too, that you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary 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. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate. With kind regards and wishes,
Two months later, in another gesture of generosity and wisdom, Jung deepens the sentiment in a letter to a man who had reached out in abject anxiety and distress, feeling that he had, quite simply, mislived his life. Jung writes:
Dear Herr N.,
Nobody can set right a mismanaged life with a few words. But there is no pit you cannot climb out of provided you make the right effort at the right place.
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. In every littlest thing you do in this way you will find yourself. [Everyone has] to do it the hard way, and always with the next, the littlest, and the hardest things.
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.
Published December 7, 2021