Ecclesiastes according to a Psychoanalyst

The book of Ecclesiastes is a ‘wisdom’ book, and as such – its wisdom is open to all ‘under the sun’. Carl Jung, a psychoanalyst and peer of Freud, had a take on the message of the book of Ecclesiastes.

For Jung, the Teacher spends the first half of his life chasing his dreams, achieving success and wealth. His success leads to a heightened sense of personal accomplishment, and an inflated ego.

Despite this, the inevitable mid-life crisis comes the way of the Teacher. Regardless of his personal successes, he feels isolated, hollow, and futile. The pleasures that used to fill his needs no longer work. So he ramps things up. Builds the even bigger house, grows the profit margins higher, has even more affairs – but pleasure does not deliver.

This lead to what is called ‘the dark night of the soul’. The Teacher’s desire to comprehend and control became a path not to enlightenment, but to self-absorbed idolatry. Somehow in seeking to become the best version of himself, he had lost himself. This insight is one that slowly dawns on you, usually through overwhelming seasons of adversity, sprinkled with momentary seasons of promise. The teacher wallowed in this space for quite some time.

Until one day a new thought came to him. The ego cannot be understood in isolation. One flower cannot flourish outside of a garden. It requires an entire ecosystem – tendered by a gardener. Life is sweet, light is life-giving when it metered out with water, and composted manure, and pruning – all in the right ratios in the hands of a skilled and experienced gardener.

On the other side of his mid-life crisis, the Teacher finds a new equilibrium. He still desires to flourish, requiring warmth, and light, and nourishment, and hydration. But he no longer chases and hoards such things by or for himself. On occasion, he still felt hot, or dry, or hungry. But rather than self-diagnose and fix, he entrusts himself to the gardener. Because gardeners, after all, tend gardens.

To be less metaphorical, for Jung the juvenile ego focuses on what I can know and control about me. While some success can be achieved, this path leads to an inflated ego that is alienated – oddly – from its ‘self’. For the ‘self’ is more than what we can know and control. Maturity comes on the other side of defeating one’s own ego, and engaging with the sub-conscious part of ‘self’ that we don’t always understand, or can master.

For Kierkegaard, a Danish Christian philosopher, spiritual maturity follows a similar path. To focus on the ego, or "me" is idolatry. This is the dominant voice in current Western self-help thinking.

Somewhat surprisingly, for Kierkegaard spiritual maturity is not the simplistic flip side. It is not: ‘I must deny my ego everything it desires, and staunchly obey God.’ Rather, spiritual maturity is the journey of coming to realise that our true ‘self’ is not just about the ego I can understand and master. The true self is an individual, created in, and like, and for communion with, and is eternally sustained by God. And there are parts of that self I do not yet fully comprehend, let alone control.

That is the resolution that the Teacher finds (according to Jung and Kierkegaard).

Rev David Rietveld

Senior Minister

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