The big picture.
In the upcoming September issue of GQ, Washington University scientists Desiree White and Richard Abrams report on an uncanny similarity between the immortal Babe Ruth and current day St. Louis Cardinals baseball slugger Albert Pujols. In 1921, when Babe Ruth was 26 and at the top of his game, he was put through a series of tests ranging from finger-tapping to visual responses to bat speed. Pujols is 26 and a top hitter in the game today. Tests similar to Ruth’s were administered to Pujols. Not only are Ruth and Pujols the only two baseball players to have ever aced the tests, they share a common trait that accounts for why they flourish as athletes. It’s the same characteristic that Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed was necessary for human flourishing – living a life of meaning and purpose.
The tests given to Pujols included putting a piece of paper in front of him with capital letters strewn about the page. Scientist Desiree White told Pujols to locate and cross out all of the As. While most people scan a page left to right, Pujols instinctively divided the page into sectors and searched each one briefly for the letters before moving on to the next sector. The result, according to White, is that Pujols – just like Babe Ruth 85 years earlier – can scan the whole field of play and see the big picture at an instant without missing any action. This accounts for Ruth’s and Pujol’s extraordinary success. It also explains why, according to Carl Jung, particular people flourish as human beings.
In 1928, Carl Gustav Jung (the founder of analytical psychology) suggested there are “big pictures” for life embedded in our mind (he called them archetypes). Some see these archetypes dimly, others with greater clarity. But the better we understand them, the more we enjoy purpose and meaning in life.
With his theory of archetypes, Jung parted ways with Sigmund Freud (who denied there was an overarching story and reduced much of our human experience to sexual orientation). Jung, instead, believed these archetypes provide a “universal collective unconscious” that plays an active role in our development, whether we know it or not. They shape the way we see our entire lives.
For Jung, the “big picture” is known partly through religion and partly through literature and art. But whether we acknowledge these archetypes or not, they are embedded in our conscious. If we see them clearly, they allow us to understand life and to endow the world with meaning and order. The better we understand them, the more we flourish.
For over two thousand years, the Christian gospel was understood as a “big picture” consisting of four interlocking and overarching archetypes: how life ought to be (Creation), how life actually is (The Fall), how life can be made better (Redemption) and what it will be one day (i.e., the final Restoration). Christians throughout the ages have known this gospel as a “four-chapter” archetype that explains our work, our families, government, why we go to school, our sexuality… everything! This understanding of the good news has helped countless people see the big picture and was enshrined in such early documents as the Nicene Creed (325 AD), the Athanasian Creed (4th century), and the Apostle’s Creed (an 8th century revision of the Old Roman Creed of the 3rd century).
Of course, an archetype demands an architect. This was the conclusion of G. K. Chesterton, one of the most influential English writers of the early 20th century: “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.” How do you feel life? Does it seem to have some rhythm and cadence? Can you scan the whole field of play and see the big picture without missing any action? Perhaps the uncanny success of Ruth and Pujols points us toward something greater.