shadow of a sign in the grass

Awakening your vocation in the afternoon of life

In Mind and Movement by suzanne.cremendavidsonLeave a Comment

The afternoon of life refers to a stage of maturity where we feel like this time has passed or must pass, and a new time is beginning – rather than one’s chronological age.


Depth psychologist CG Jung wrote, “The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only its meaning and purpose are different… What youth found and must find outside, the man [and woman] of life’s afternoon must find within”.

Vocation (as distinct from career) is a calling to be our most authentic selves in the work (as distinct from a job) we do in the world. Jung termed this calling individuation; humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow termed it self-actualisation; and archetypal psychologist James Hillman termed it soul-making. My colleague Dr Jennifer Selig writes that, regardless of the term they used, all three psychologists believed that people often live lives far too small for them, giving in to the day-to-day demands of living (and earning a living) at the expense of the expression of their larger selves and their deeper souls.

Today in Australia the phrase ‘vocational education’ has become synonymous with skill training for a specific job or occupation, but if you dig more deeply into the original meaning of the word vocation you’ll find quite a different story.  Vocation comes from the Latin vocatio, meaning “to be addressed by a voice” — but it’s also a calling or summons to give voice, to express one’s voice.

Jung believed that a defining feature of vocation, beyond heredity or environment, was an irrational factor, which he likened to the inner voice. “The inner voice is the voice of a fuller life, of a wider, more comprehensive consciousness.”

Traditionally associated with religious or spiritual work, the idea of vocation has gone through many transformations over the centuries, and many learned people have puzzled over what this mysterious term really means.  One quite simple description I rather like, from Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak, is that vocation is “something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are none the less compelling”.

Many people are called beyond their existing work or career path into a deeper sense of career at midlife, as they encounter the shadow parts of themselves that have been repressed. The concept of the shadow flows from Jung’s discoveries of the split between the light and dark sides of the human psyche. Jung described this personal shadow as the other in us: “the ‘negative’ side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide”. Most simply, while the ego is what we are and know about consciously, the shadow is that part of ourselves that we fail to see or know.

In every occupation, certain skills and aptitudes are encouraged and developed while others are relegated to the shadow. In many occupations and workplaces, qualities such as logical thought, planning, assertiveness, professional detachment and a focus on goals are regarded as desirable. This means that,for many men and women, their countervailing qualities, traditionally associated with the ‘feminine’, such as feeling, intuition, sensitivity and creativity, are discounted and repressed in the pursuit of a career.

Jung observed that what is repressed, ignored or devalued, gradually accumulates and over time begins to influence consciousness, often getting our attention through symptoms such as depression. Although our shadow will usually consist of what we consider to be inferiorities or negative qualities (because of shame, social pressure, or family and societal attitudes), it may also contain positive elements. In Owning your own shadow: Understanding the dark side of the psyche, Robert Johnson wrote about the ‘gold’ in the shadow, which occurs for example in the phenomenon of hero worship, where an individual’s finest qualities are projected onto another.

So our shadow contains much psychic energy and unlived life potential!

Perhaps one of Jung’s most significant accomplishments was to reveal the shadowy realm of the unconscious as the creative source of that all that we eventually become as individuals.

“The unconscious also contains the dark springs of instinct and intuition, it contains all those forces which mere reasonableness, propriety, and the orderly course of bourgeois existence could never call awake, all those creative forces which lead man onwards to new developments, new forms, and new goals…. The influence of the unconscious…adds to consciousness everything that has been excluded by the drying up of the springs of intuition and by the fixed pursuit of a single goal.”

(Jung CW10, para. 25)

So for individuals seeking to get in touch with their authentic vocation, appreciating the role of the unconscious is essential.

Jungian and archetypal (or depth) psychology calls our attention to the importance of what lies in the shadow, below the surface of conscious awareness.  It is a discipline which values the creative imagination as a source of wisdom and knowledge. Depth psychological tools include working with dreams, noticing synchronicities (or meaningful coincidences) as they occur in our lives, and engaging archetypal patterns and figures that are most relevant to the discovery of deeper purpose.  To help us live into (and out of) our authentic vocation, drawing on these practices to complement other career strategies can be transformative in the afternoon of life. We are beckoned into authentic vocation in many ways that go beyond our conscious minds.


Suzanne Cremen Davidson, MA (Jungian and archetypal studies), MA (humanities and mythology), BA/LLB, is founder of the Life Artistry Centre for Archetype, Imagination and Vocation in Melbourne and adjunct faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute USA.

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