Detours

by rthieme on November 24, 1997

Islands in the Clickstream When Carl Jung was an old man, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a friend asked, “Dr. Jung, could you please tell me the shortest path to my life’s goals?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Jung replied: “The detours!”


My wife was taught by her parents that trips began at the front door and headed straight to their destination. The first time I said, “Let’s try a different road and see where it goes,” it was quite a stretch. Now we both think the most interesting parts of a trip are often the detours.

Here in the upper midwest, people used to map a straight-line trajectory from cradle to grave. When you left school, you were supposed to get a job and keep that job until you retired. People who deviated from that plan were… well, suspect.

I remember a childhood friend who decided to be an accountant. He outlined his life straight through to retirement. He never moved, seldom travelled, and built up a nest egg. End of story.

Some people log onto the Internet and know exactly what they want, get it, and log off. I don’t browse as much as I did because of intermediate structures like directories and search engines, but the pleasure of browsing is still driven by the feeling that I might find something wonderful and unexpected. Often enough, I do, and like a slot machine with a high pay-off, that keeps me pulling the handle.

Sometimes something I find feels like it was planted, that I was always intended to stumble upon it.

I wonder if detours really exist or if that’s just a name for essential legs of the journey that can not be predicted from what comes before. The whole journey, including detours and dead-ends, might all be right there when we start.

“In my beginning is my end,” said T. S. Eliot.

I was once scheduled by my family to be an accountant too. On the eve of my junior year of college, I looked at that semester’s books and recoiled. I ran around changing courses, majors, schools. I never regretted that decision nor any subsequent decision that emerged with such clarity from the inside out. I learned to consult my internal compass and go where it told me to go.

In my twenties, I wrote a novel about a young writer (naturally) who wrote a short story with a limited vision. Over the course of a single night he rewrote that story and rewrote it until his vision — embodied in a final story that included everything that came before — was comprehensive and mature.

Some of the paths he tried along the way turned out to be dead-ends, but at the end of the novel, even the dead-ends were integral to the structure.

When I look at that novel now, thirty years later, I see that it outlines the trajectory of my life. Everything I needed to learn in the flesh I already knew, but I had to live my life so I could learn it, not just know it.


Jungian psychology is full of archetypal images, universal symbols that transcend our cultures. Archetypes show up in stories, paintings, sacred rites, and movies, and computer games, and now the Net.

One archetype is the “wise old man” or “wise old woman,” an image of the part of ourselves that always knows. In guided meditations we can imagine a forest (of life) and a cave in that forest and a wise old man or woman in the cave. We can approach them as Greeks approached the oracle of Delphi with the puzzles of our lives. Their answers are always mysterious, always right.

The seed contains the tree. The seed knows from the moment of germination where it is headed. It may twist in response to drought or flood, but knows how to become the mature tree. And we know how to become who we already are.

Fate is character, the Greeks concluded, and our destiny, already determined, has only to be chosen to turn necessity into freedom.


It is no accident that “management by objective” has been eclipsed during the computer era by “scenario planning.” Management by objective presumed a straight line to the future and a series of steps by which to get there. Scenario planning involves cross-disciplinary teams that define three or four possible futures and the conditions that must hold if they’re to exist. That branching fan of possibilities is then compared to what emerges so adjustments can be made.

There is, of course, no such thing as a “future;” the future, like all descriptions of spacetime, is a human construction in part back-engineered from our interaction with our structures of information technology. As management-by-objective echoed the straight line of printed text and mechanization, scenario planning is shaped like a computer program and the logic that governs it. The context becomes the content and then dissolves, forgetting itself.


Any parent who thinks they will determine who their children will become is taught by life to forget it. Children emerge with personalities, temperaments, set vectors of energy. The most we can do as parents is help them grow.

Individual psyches are wise and know where they want to go. Societies are wise too and grow organically, knowing more than their individual members, and so are cultures, and species know what they’re destined to become, and life knows where it is headed, knitting itself on the loom of the universe into the billion possibilities that have all been present from the beginning.

The Internet, imaged with reflexive symbols, is a mirror of our individual minds and collective Self, one way by which consciousness is becoming conscious of itself. Consciousness can always call recursively its own ancient wisdom and self-correct. Seeming detours, wise old men and wise old women wait in caves in the forests of cyberspace, real simulations of the wisdom of the heart.

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