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"A Fresh Experiment: The Archetype of the Inner Child" by Edith Sullwold, Ph.D.
Reprinted by permission of Jeremy Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, CA,
Reclaiming the Inner Child by Jeremiah Abrams, ed.,
copyright © 1989 by Edith Sullwold.

Edith Sullwold brought considerable energy, understanding, and sensitivity to the difficult task of distinguishing the personal from the archetypal qualities of the inner child. Her warm and particular feelings for the child's inner life are blended here with scholarship, interpretive skill, and a storyteller's knowledge of her material. This essay was originally delivered by the author on November 20, 1987, as the keynote address at the conference Reawakening the Inner Child, in Washington, D.C. Dr. Sullwold, who was a child therapist and therapist supervisor, had generously agreed to expand and adapt her talk expressly for this collection, to once again sound the keynote on the inner child.

One of my favorite quotations regarding the child comes from a rather unlikely source, the pen of George Bernard Shaw. In an essay that asks, what is a child ?, he answers:

     An experiment. A fresh attempt to produce the just man made perfect, that is, to make humanity divine. And you
    will vitiate the experiment if you make the slightest attempt to abort it into some fancy figure of your own, for example,
    your notion of a good man or a womanly woman. . . . If you begin with its holiest aspirations, and suborn them for your
    own purposes, there is hardly any limit to the mischief you may do.

This statement seems to speak with a profound understanding of the nature of both the outer and inner child. The idea that a child is a "fresh experiment" implies that the child is viewed as an individual with gifts and limitations particular to his or her own unique nature – a being who can contribute to the exploration of life's meaning, who can contribute to the richness of life's possibilities.

This new being, out of necessity for nurturance and guidance, finds himself in a particular family, a particular culture, a particular education. Within these particulars are rules, values, and systems to which the child begins to adapt, becoming shaped by them. This shaping often happens to such an extent that the child is no longer connected to those aspects of his being which do not fit within the structure of these outer forms and expectations. For some, adaptation means that those gifts which do not fit within the structure or are not valued are submerged and consequently lost, not only to the individual but to the culture as well.

In others, the vitality of these gifts cannot be so easily submerged. Lacking appropriate channels for expression, the energy behind these gifts will cause pain, as can any energy when it is blocked and pushes for a chance to live.

This experience can be like that which Wordsworth so well describes, "Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy"
2 ("The Boy" refers to the Divine or Self aspect). Every time I read this line I feel within my own body the double strain of restriction from the outside and the organic pressure of growth from the inside.

While writing this, on the first glorious day of spring, I went outside to watch our tulips open in the sun. I noticed some day lilies that had struggled to come up through a few boards left over from our winter building project. The force of these fragile shoots in a vital push for growth was amazing, but because of the restriction of the boards they were bent, distorted, and somewhat yellow. Once out into the light and free of the boards, perhaps they would be able to straighten up, continue to grow, and eventually to blossom. But they might never gain the fullness of other flowers nearby that had only the open space of sun, air, and rain to meet as they emerged.

So it is often with the child. The board once used to provide structure may crush or distort the natural organic life of our children. We need to be continually vigilant in looking tinder those boards – examining our value systems and our assumptions about reality.

Where shall we turn for the inspiration and encouragement to lift up the debris of the old and restricting structure – our notions of the "good man" or "womanly woman" of which Shaw speaks? Unfortunately, these images are often formed out of an unconscious acceptance of the collective definitions of success, health, and normality.

Here Shaw's last phrase is important – the idea that the child has his or her own "holiest aspirations," own unique path. In this context, the word "holiest" may have two meanings. The aspirations or intentions are seen to have a holy or spiritual source. And we know the word "holy" is related to "whole." To take this gift of life we are given and carefully, respectfully help it to grow to its fullest can be the "holiest" task. This growth must include all aspects of our being as individuals, not only those that are sanctioned by collective values. This urge to grow is as natural in each of us as the urge to push up past the boards was in the day lily.  C. G. Jung says in his essay on "The Psychology of the Child Archetype" that the image of the child "represents the strongest, the most ineluctable urge in every being, namely the urge to realize itself.”

The divine aspect of the inner child that resides in us all is a source that when consciously realized can give us the courage and enthusiasm of exploration to break out of our "prison doors." I use the word "divine" to distinguish this aspect from the inner child which has been formed by memory of personal experience – that is, the neglected, abused, unfed, unloved, overdisciplined, overjudged child, as well as the vulnerable and needful aspects of the child we once were. This is the child – our child of experience – which we all desire to heal, so that we can reclaim the energy for adult action that still resides in the reactive patterns of defense and protection that we developed in response to early painful experiences. To heal this child also means that we will not unconsciously continue these patterns with the "fresh experiments" that are our own children.

The actual child of our memory is no longer who we are. Though we have survived beyond it, we frequently continue to live our lives unaware of patterns we adopted when we were young, and thus we limit the scope of our living in the present. The consequences of the hurt, fear, anger, and loneliness of early years have been given much recognition in recent years in psychological theory and therapeutic practice. However, when the spotlight is thrown on early experiences, other memories also can return – positive images of events that supported the child's natural exuberance, curiosity and adventurous exploration, the deliciousness of the senses and the richness of the imagination. These memories, allowed to emerge, give us a sense of the history of our pleasure and pains, reconnecting us to the being we are now as adults. How we live in the present is a consequence of all the events which have come to us in our experiment with living.

In addition to memories of actual events, we often carry within us an image of the ideal childhood, one with perfect nurturance and guidance. It is the childhood we would have liked, constructed out of the limitations of our own experience. By comparison, we find our own childhood wanting. This image is sometimes projected on others whom we perceive as having had a perfect childhood, and we increase our loneliness and pain as we mourn for the ideal. Frequently this image is also projected on our children as we try to provide a perfect childhood for them, at the same time creating an image of ourselves as the perfect parents.

One antidote for this paradisical idealization of childhood is to share our stories and history with others, discovering thereby that the common human condition of children and parents is a complex blend of successes and failures, gifts and limitations.

Behind these images of the actual and the ideal childhood is the image of the divine inner child mentioned earlier, which comes from the deepest archetypal level of our being. This archetypal image has as its universal function the task of seeing that our experiment with living remains fresh. The divine inner child has innocence, which the Zen master Suzuki Roshi called "beginner’s mind." It represents spontaneity and the deep urge of the human soul to expand, to grow, and to explore vast and unlimited territories.

Sometimes this inner child makes very strong demands, presenting itself in emotions of anxiety, depression, anger, hopelessness, or in physical symptoms. Sometimes it brings us subtle and fragile new shoots of inspiration – a sudden idea, a dream, a fantasy, or a feeling of longing for something renewing. The natural, vital force of this archetype wants recognition by us and cannot be ignored without consequences. If we do not claim its enlivening energy for ourselves, we often project it outwardly. If we place the archetypal child onto our outer, physical children, then they will carry the burden of our own creative development.

This inspiring image of the inner child represents the creative aspects of life, both within the individual human being and in the collective. It is expressed in myth, the metaphorical realm of history. In every culture there are stories of the birth of the special child – child of the gods, goddesses, and heroes – timeless stories that belong to the species. As we hear these ancient stories we can perhaps resonate with them as songs of our primal origins. Here we can rediscover and remember the roots of our own nature, our instincts, and creativity, and recognize elements of our being we once knew instinctively. They can remind us of our incipient wholeness, which was in our origins.

Perhaps it is best to give an example of such a story. My favorite one among the Greek epiphanies is time story of Hermes as a child. Hermes is born of a union of Zeus and the wood nymph Maia. Maia's name reminds us of the month of May; of Mary the mother of another Divine Child, Jesus; and of Maya, the mother of Buddha. To protect Hermes from Zeus's jealous wife Hera, Maia keeps the infant in a cave, as if in a second womb. Zeus has abandoned his new son and has returned to Olympus and his old family.

Maia, a spirit of nature, cares for Hermes. A trickster in character, the child escapes the cave in the early morning of the first day of his life, creates a lyre from a tortoise shell, and steals his brother Apollo's cattle. Apollo apprehends his young brother and takes him to trial at the court of Zeus. Hermes, according to Homer, replies to all-knowing Zeus's accusations, "How could I have done such a thing? I was only born yesterday," and winks at Zeus. At that, Zeus laughs, and all those on Olympus laugh with him. Zeus's only dictum is that harmony be established between the two brothers, a feat that is ultimately achieved when Hermes plays the new instrument of harmony he has created, the lyre.

In this story we find the universally common elements of mythic tales recounting the birth of the divine child. Although there are variations of plot, circumstance, and costume, these mythic dramas seem to share a skeletal structure that defines the general qualities and characteristics of the inner child, attributes that have much meaning to us psychologically.

In the first place, these children are born under circumstances of unusual conception and delivery – unusual from the point of view of ordinary human birth. These conceptions are sometimes the result of the union of spirit and human, as in the immaculate conception of Mary or in the case of Buddha's mother, who is impregnated by an elephant. Sometimes the union is that of a god with some aspect of nature, as Hermes born from Zeus and the wood nymph. The birth itself can be unusual, directly out of primal elements of water or fire (Venus), or out of the head of Zeus (Athena), or from his thigh (Dionysus).

These unusual births speak metaphorically of the emergence in us of a new beginning that comes from unknowable, unexpected, out-of-the ordinary sources and creates spontaneous birthings within our own psyches. These may come as hunches, dreams, visions, or emotions. If the outer personality or the culture has developed in a one-sided, restricted manner, the appearance of the divine inner child will presage the possibility of renewal and expansion. The inner birth may be conceived through an outer event that startles or surprises us. Perhaps seen as an accident of fate, it awakens us to a new insight of life possibility.

The child, so unusually conceived and delivered, comes into a particular situation, culture, or order that is already formed, whether in the realm of the gods, the underworld, or the human sphere. This world has its own established patterns and principles represented by those in power, and this unusually created and creative child is in most cases in great danger from the old order. Even Apollo attempts to destroy his precocious baby brother, Hermes. Herod kills the young in order to be sure of destroying the Christ child. Hera, always jealous of Zeus' mating with the new and virginal elements, seeks to destroy the progeny of such unions. These rulers represent in us the old structure that does not want to lose its power to the new and divinely conceived being. To incorporate the new, the old must give way to change.

To be sensitive and responsive to the promptings and demands of this inner child, who is constantly urging us to be more, opens us for change. On the other hand, the discomfort of this experience will often result in attempts to placate, distract, or tranquilize this inner child, or to ignore it and deny it time and attention. Thus we jeopardize our own "holiest aspirations."

In addition to danger from the existing order that wants to maintain its established power, these divine children of myth and psyche are exposed and vulnerable because they are often abandoned by one or both parents, as Zeus abandons Hermes. Within our own psyches this may indicate that the ordinary familiar parents, patterns of what we already know, abandon this child to his own devices to find his own singular, non-conventional place in the order of things.

Although abandoned by his divine parents, the child is often protected by guardians from the earth realm, representations of the natural forces in our own simple, primitive nature that can nurture this special child quietly, with a kind of earth-peasant knowledge. This natural force can allow the child to become earthed, to become incarnated in us in its own natural organic timing.

The child's place of birth often offers some protection. Hermes is born in a cave, a kind of second womb. So was his father, Zeus, protecting him from being devoured by his father, Chronus. Christ is born in a stable, since there is no room at the collective inn. And here again it is the animals and shepherds who first surround him. In this protected place, the child can gain strength until ready to enter the threatening world. Psychologically, this protection may represent some development in us – a creative idea, a dream, or a new attitude or relation to life – that should not be manifested or brought out into the light before it has a certain maturity and can survive on its own and, consequently, can bring effective and integrated change to the old order. Christ is twelve when he returns and speaks to the elders in the temple.

Paradoxically, this abandoned and threatened child that needs protection is already full of creative individuality and indestructible power. It is the extraordinary gift of Hermes that creates the lyre and threatens Apollo with the magical power of trickery. Buddha, just born, walks seven steps from his mother and, pointing both upward and downward, declares himself Prince of all that is above and below. It is this power that draws the three Kings of the Orient to come and worship the Christ child.

In fact, it is precisely this recognized, prophesied, intuited power that is such a threat to the old order. It is not just an ordinary event, this birth. In psychological terms it can be seen as a manifestation of the Self, which demands a restructuring of the personality. This can lead to a painful disintegration of the old form and often a time of confusion, loneliness, and disorientation before the new order is established.

These potentially painful trials are sensed by the currently ruling principle in the personality, the ego. The ego may set up resistances in an attempt to silence the new voice. But being divine, it will not be silenced. We always have before us the choice of listening to it cry to us out of its prison, or to join its exuberant, joyful movement toward an expanded, more humane life. Then we can enter with it into the world of divine play.

Hermes brought laughter and the sound of soothing, harmonious music into the world of Olympus – a new ingredient in the kingdom to be acknowledged and appreciated, changing the quality of the realm forever.

In the modern adult, the energy of the inner child may result in dramatic changes in lifestyle and image. It may lead only to the pursuit of new interests or habits. But once born in us, this child will demand that we expand our world to include it, to suffer the abandonment of our own inner familiarities that sustained us, and to tolerate the loneliness arising from creative action conceived out of an inspired connection to the new. The prize to be won is our totality, a totality hinted at in our beginnings and to which we are inexorably drawn. It is possible that cultures can also be so renewed, old orders reexamined and reconstructed, leading toward a more harmonious world for the human race.

The archetype of the inner child, then, can bring a sense of hope to the hopelessness of our personal history and world history. It reminds us of a time as it was in the beginning, the moment of creation, the new, the unexpected, the individual difference that changes the whole. This is the promise of the "fresh experiment," the promise of the inner child.


  1  George Bernard Shaw, "Essay on Parents and Children," in Prefaces (London: Constable & Co., 1934), p. 47.
  2  William Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality ..." in Laurel Poetry Series (New York: Dell, 1968), p. 115.
  3  C. G. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 9, part 1, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Princeton, N.J.: Bollingen, 1954), p.170.


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