Honor the Child
Marlene Winell, December, 2007
The Christmas season is often busy and complicated with families and schedules and special events. There are standard criticisms of materialism and holiday angst. Yet at the center of it all there is a powerful image that speaks to all of us – the Child. It’s fascinating to me that once a year so many people stop everything, or at least pause, to acknowledge a Child.
But who is this Child of Christmas and why does the image have such power? We have religious and secular interpretations, and I would like to suggest a third – a soulful interpretation.
For Christians, this is a specific Child, the baby Jesus, entering the world to be its savior. This is why the angels sing and the wise men visit. God has at last fulfilled his promise, and there is rejoicing.
For other people, not Christian, the Christ Child still represents hope and renewal. As with the solstice and the new year, the Child symbolizes newness and birth, the promise of fresh life. The Christmas tree also has this idea of new life. As such, the holiday still has meaning and reason for celebration.
These reasons are significant and important to remember in the context of all the commercialism of the season, of course. But I think there is much more to appreciate about the Child. This is not a child that will grow up to save the world. In history as we know it, Jesus Christ did not fulfill messianic predictions. Some Christians will say that Christ rules a heavenly kingdom of the heart, and is still coming to rule the earth. Perhaps. But the focus on someone coming to rescue us is a mistake, in my opinion. (Other Christians will say that he came to teach us how to save ourselves--a lesson we still need to learn.)
The view of the Child as symbol of hope and life is a valid alternative view embraced by many at this time of year. Our world is so weary with struggles, we all need the healing force of hope. If the image of a newborn baby gives us encouragement, and draws us together with gentle love in our families, that is certainly a good thing. “Peace on Earth,” is a welcome message on holiday greeting cards.
But the Child archetype connects to each of us in a personal way as well. We were all children once and we can perhaps remember the innocence and freedom. It’s good to ask ourselves whether we still know how to laugh and enjoy life. The image of a baby instinctively raises questions, and brings up feelings.
On the deepest level, the Child connects to matters of the soul. By this I mean essence – the way we actually experience being alive. This is not the Christ child or just a symbol of hope -- this is the Original Child that is in each of us. This is the Child we all know is still present but may be lost or buried. Our life patterns, our “personalities,” our many roles, our anxieties, our regrets, our plans, our endless thoughts, all conspire to distance us from who we once were – infants with magical capability for presence and joy.
In the words of William Schafer, author of the paper, “The Infant as Reflection of Soul,” “Babies by their very existence call us back to something we all sense we have lost. They do not enchant us simply because they are ‘cute.’” He says infants frequently hint that they are capable of experiences we no longer commonly enjoy – original experiences of energy, openness, and joy. In early infancy, Schafer says, these are profoundly essential human spiritual experiences. The pure awareness of a baby is free of internal commentary, judgment, comparison, fear, or desire.
Interestingly, in the spiritual Balinese culture, babies are not allowed to touch the ground for the first year of life. They are considered closer to God than adults. In any culture, one only needs to look into an infant’s eyes to see a being that is absolutely in the present, that has no agenda whatsoever, that is open to the simple miracle of being alive. This delight is pure and plain in a smile, a look, a wriggle of total energy. The ego has not emerged; there is just being. Worries about the past and concerns for the future do not exist; the moment is timeless, endless. In Schafer’s terms, calm infant joy of this kind is the natural, inevitable consequence of presence.
In contrast, adults experience split-second judgments that erode the capacity for joy. If we have a bad experience, we can’t wait for it to end. If we have a good one, we want more of it and we worry that it might stop. Either way, joy—the sense of being drawn to our actual experience in wonder and curiosity without fear or repulsion—is veiled. We end up living lives in which most of our time is spent wanting to be in some other moment than the present one. The quality of every moment is constantly being judged and compared with something past or some imagined way that it should be.
Intuitively, we have some awareness of this dilemma. As babies learn to navigate the world, we watch them and marvel at their “development,” but gradually we see them become like us as they grow up, industrious and goal-oriented, forgetting their pure state of just being instead of doing. It seems like an endless cycle.
But if we choose, we can learn from infants. We need to see them with new eyes and let them be our teachers. We can let them remind us of what we have lost and teach us again to be purposefully and mindfully present and joyful. We can learn from the way they respond with awareness to others.
When new parents talk about holding a newborn, they talk of a “miracle” with overwhelming feelings. Other people can have the same feelings about a baby, and there is a tug on something deep within. What is that? This is your core, your Original Child, your personal manifestation of the archetype, alive deep inside. And part of the archetype of the Child is the capability of great transformation.
But the Child is quiet and fragile. The experience of deep contact depends on connecting to that Child within. And it is our hectic lives with layers of coping, achieving, struggling, or succeeding that hinder the knowledge of the Child from reaching us. And ironically it is the Christmas season that is full of too much hustle and bustle. We lose the connection, and in the midst of parties and presents, we feel lonely and unsupported.
And perhaps there is another good reason why feelings are raw at this time of year; we aren’t just busy. It could be that the image of the Christmas Child, in addition to the childlikeness of the ornaments, cookies, and presents, evokes the knowledge we all have, albeit below awareness, that we are still children at heart. As adults, this includes the needs and the wounds that we have acquired. Even Carl Rogers, after a lifetime of studying psychotherapy, said “there are no grown-ups.”
But the Divine Child part of the archetype is the one that calls to us at this time of year. Each of us personally is drawn to hope and renewal. Each of us is still innocent, life-loving, and capable of the soulfulness we see in infants’ eyes.
So this season, let’s consider what it might mean to honor the Child – first of all in ourselves, and then in each other. We can slow down and look around. We can be gentle. We can remember that we are all connected. We can watch our adult habit of having expectations and practice appreciating what actually is. We can allow ourselves to feel joy for no reason. What else this might include I don’t know, but I suspect it could be quite different, and quite magical. For me, I plan to cherish every opportunity to look into the eyes of a young Child. I expect I will learn something I can use when I look out of my own Child eyes. I will practice delight.
Reference: Schafer, W. (2004). The infant as reflection of soul: The time before there was a self. Journal of Zero to Three. National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, 24: 3, pp. 5-8.
Marlene Winell, Ph.D. is a psychologist and consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area who works with people recovering from harmful religious experience. She is the author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. See www.marlenewinell.net for services and events.