Carl Jung on How to Live and the Origin of “Do the Next Right Thing” – The Marginalian

In the last seasons of existence, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the completely improbable course of my life, not by planning but by living.

We yearn for the next step and the road to the horizon, alleviating our anxiety with the illusion of a destination somewhere beyond our present life prospects.

But the hardest truth to bear is that death is the only horizon, with infinite ways to get there – none can be repeated, all uncertain on its way, all only certain to get there. This is the reason why there are so many types of beautiful infinitely life. That is why each of them, even the most outwardly, shivered with an astonishing degree of suspicion and confusion. Uncertainty is the price of beauty, and integrity is the only compass for the region of uncertainty that makes up the land space of any given life.

And so the best we can do is take an intuitively correct next step until one day, pause to catch our breath, then turn around and gasp for a path. If we are fortunate enough, if we are prepared enough to face uncertainty, then this is our own unique path, uncharted by our anxious young selves, and in which no one else has interfered.

The recovery community has a shortcut to keeping this at the center of awareness in times of inner turmoil: “Do the next right thing.” This concept originated, in fact, two years before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, in a clear and fascinating letter to the Swiss psychiatrist. Carl Jung (July 26, 1875 – June 6, 1961) wrote to an anonymous reporter, listed in Selected Letters of C.G. Jung, 1909-1961 (a public library).

Carl Jung

On December 15, 1933, Jung replied to a woman who asked for his guidance on how to simply live. Two generations after the young Nietzsche warned, “No one can build you the bridge that you, alone, must cross the river of life,” Jung wrote:

Dear Frau V.

Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how to do it should to live. One lives as one can. There is no one specific method for the individual prescribed for him or which will be the appropriate method. If that is what you want, you better join the Catholic Church, they tell you what. Moreover this method fits well with the average method of the human race in general. But if you want to go your own way, this is the way you make for yourself, which is never described, which you do not know beforehand, and which arises on its own when you put one foot in front of the other. If you do the next thing that you should always do, you will safely and steadily go along the path set by your subconscious. Of course, it doesn’t help to think about how you should live. And then you know, too, that you can’t figure it out, but calmly do the next and most important thing. As long as you think you don’t yet know what this is, you still have a lot of money to spend on pointless speculations. But if you do the next and most necessary thing with conviction, you are always doing something that is meaningful and intended by fate. With regards and wishes,


CJ Young

Two months later, in another gesture of generosity and wisdom, Young deepens the sense in a letter to a man who had stretched out his hand in utter anxiety and distress, and felt that, quite simply, his life had gone astray. Young writes:

Dear Hare N.

No one can correct a mismanaged life with a few words. But there is no hole that you cannot get out of provided you put the right effort in the right place.
When one is in disarray like you, one has no more right to worry about one’s own psychic folly, but must do the next with diligence and dedication and earn the goodwill of others. You will find yourself in every little thing you do this way. [Everyone has] To do it the hard way, and always with the next, smaller, and harder things.


CJ Young

Supplement with a poignant lens on how to live and how to die and Darwin’s deathbed thinking about what makes life worth living, then revisit Jung on life and death, his rare BBC interview on human nature, and the story of how he and his life are. Wolfgang Pauli, an unlikely physicist’s friend, invented the concept of synchrony.

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