I Thought I Was a Child

One of the insights I’ve received from reading James Hillman is the ability to hold the opposites in one hand and see how they are related. In an anthology of his writings and lectures called Mythic Figures he suggests that the archetype of childhood has permeated our culture and that childhood has become both something we worship and admonish ourselves for.

On the one hand we place everything related to fun, enjoyment and creativity in the lap of the child, but in the next breath we berate ourselves and each other for our childishness. Oh, what’s a human to do? Should we grow up into responsible, yet boring adults or remain carefree, answering to no one, never a worry for the future, living to play? Can the child be both creative and responsible? Must we leave behind creativity in order to be responsible? What happens when creativity is opposed to responsibility and does it have to be this way?

“The pattern we have been exposing shows a vicious circle. Abandoning of the child in order to become mature and then abandonment to the child when it returns. Either we repress or we coddle this face of our subjectivity. In both cases the child is unbearable: first we cannot support it at all, then we give way to it altogether. We seem to follow a pattern contained in the word “abandon” itself, as it is contained in the alternate and opposite meanings of “losing” and of “releasing.” On the one hand we free ourselves of a condition by letting it go from us, and on the other hand, we free ourselves by letting go to it.

The child archetype, because of its ahistorical and prehistorical tendencies, by moulding consciousness after itself would have us lose history, producing a generation of abandoned children who see all things in their beginnings and ends, an existence of omnipotent hope and catastrophic dread.” James Hillman

He goes on to remind us, archetypally speaking, how deeply entangled the child is with the mother.

“For the mothering attitude, it is always a matter of life and death; we are obsessed with how things will turn out; we ask what happened and what will happen. The mother makes things “great,” exaggerates, enthuses, infuses the power of life and death into each detail, because the mother’s relation to the child is personal, not personal as related and particular, but archetypally personal in the sense that the child’s fate is delivered through the personal matrix of her fate, becoming fate in general which she then is called.

The mother archetype gives the personalistic illusion to fate. Whatever she has to do with takes on overwhelming personal importance which actually is general and altogether impersonal: the desires and loathing of the mother-son relation so intimately personal become suprapersonal enormities, just as the experiences of despair, renewal, continuity, and mystery of the mother-daughter relation that seem so fatefully personal become impersonal eternal events. The growth she furthers is all-out and passionate, the death overwhelming, mater dolorosa, for the mother is always too much: goodness and support, concern for weakness, or interest in ambition. Her too-muchness makes the child into hero and rebel, into princess and prostitute, for her passion converts our hurt derelict conditions into archetypal importance.”

So the child archetype keeps us bound in the sense  that everything becomes too personal which keeps us from the freedom to truly be related, moving beyond our neediness and demands of each other. Instead of seeing the other through the lens of curiosity and the skill of listening, we look for approval and love that in spite of our efforts we fail to ever feel. This in turn keeps us dependent, always hoping that we are lovable, good, or just the opposite, keeping a safe distance, rejecting the claims that the archetypal mother makes, because we know her power is too great and her demands impossible.

Archetypal psychology does not offer us hope, but rather encourages us to see where we are, to experience the pain and suffering of the ideas and fantasies that have us in their sway. Perhaps all that it offers is a flashlight when the only thing we can see is that we are in a very dark place.

“It’s such a clever innocence with which you show myself to me 
As if you know how it feels to never be who you wanted to be 
I thought I was a child until you turned and smiled 
I thought that I was free but I’m just one more prisoner of time 
Alone within the boundaries of my mind” Jackson Browne

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