Restraint and Abandon: The Child Archetype

Flailing his arms, screaming in panic, his head disappears underwater. The quick-thinking lifeguard stride jumps into the pool and pulls the boy to safety. Aaron’s shivering body and heaving shoulders make it difficult for the lifeguard to wrap him in his towel. His mother is called and Aaron waits for her in the lifeguard station, mercifully away from the inquisitive eyes of the other swimmers. Aaron silently vows never to go swimming again.

The same day on the other side of town, the lifeguard on duty notices a small boy on the high dive. He hits the water like an arrow and goes straight to the bottom. Watching him jump, the lifeguard thinks, “brave kid” and turns her attention to the two running behind her chair in a race to be the first one in the pool. “Slow down” she wearily repeats for the millionth time today. She glances over the diving area and spots the “brave kid”, John, right where she left him, at the bottom of the pool. After scooping John out of the water and depositing him out of harm’s way, she imposes the usual fifteen minute expulsion, sitting by her chair. When his time is up, John walks off stiff-legged, resenting the lifeguard for her humiliating punishment.

What a different reaction to the same situation! Aaron responds to his fear by playing it safe and never taking a risk to swim again. John throws caution to the wind with reckless abandon and does not learn from his mistake. Imagine Aaron and John representing images of our own inner child as well as part of the whole human race. When an image corresponds to certain collective structural elements of the human psyche, Jung called it an archetype. The child archetype carries our future hopes, our potential for something new and represents the emergence of that which is yet unknown. (CW, 9i, 278) Aaron severely restricts himself from exploring his potential for the sake of being safe. His youthful frivolity, playfulness and pleasure is limited by his fear. John, on the other hand, has unrealistic hopes and dreams and avoids the responsibilities of growing up by learning to swim. Both children’s enlivening, charming and refreshing elements of human experience are severely restricted because of their attitudes towards the world. Aaron, the overly cautious child within us lives in a world of fear where we are constantly trying to control our fates and therefore, our destinies. Each one of us has a responsibility for how our own fears and need for control add to the collective attitude of the world. The John within us remains uninformed while living the unexamined life. Living life with complete abandon keeps us from examining our fears and therefore adds to societal recklessness. We all have these attitudes of restraint and abandon and the key is to be aware of both, and hold the tension between these opposites. The child archetype represents our potential for something new to emerge out of the unknown, in other words, our creative possibilities.