The Orphan archetype has survived throughout history as one of the most common but fraught life paths of the fool’s journey and treads a thin but tragic line between good and evil.
The orphan’s depth of suffering means the elation of achievement soars even greater and it is for this reason that many an orphan character has littered the pages and screens of children’s literature and film. Harry Potter, The Lion King, Oliver Twist; on one side of the chasm lies distrust and betrayal, the other; detachment from the need to be accepted by others, standing out from the crowd and even, if all goes to plan… spiritual enlightenment.
It is because of this that most of the world’s religions have an orphan as their central focus; although when it comes to the prophets it is Buddha alone who dives in to the full extent of the orphan’s suffering in order to transform the lesson of brutal abandonment, into one of spiritual attainment.
Many writers, artists and political figures have also experienced the harsh truth of losing a mother or father in the early stages of life when nurture and unconditional love are at the forefront of our needs, resulting in many a brilliant (if not emotionally unstable) individual. Sylvia Plath, Malcom X, Virginia Woolf, Aristotle, John Keats… The list goes on, and it is here that the orphan often molds into the rebel or the visionary, where the individual uses the intensity of human experience to give birth to creativity.
The term ‘orphan’ is loosely used by Jung as one who has experienced the act of abandonment by a parent at some point in their childhood, (whether the physical death of one or both parents has actually occurred), and it is for this reason that EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US have the opportunity to use this to further our spiritual paths.
Having all encountered abandonment during the developmental process, (which interestingly happens around the time a child is able to fully comprehend death), we are given the opportunity to detach ourselves from the human experience and remind ourselves that we are in fact spiritual beings learning lessons in order to advance.
But is the orphan’s experience one might chose throughout the many lives of a soul as he/she transcends the many lessons of being human? Or is it simply another wrung in the ladder? One perhaps that many empaths select in order to experience the depths of suffering to help others come out of theirs? Or perhaps it is just a roll of the dice, an accident that happens despite past life contracts and life review deals, and one which we must shoulder to the best of our ability.
Whatever the reason, it’s no secret that the role of the orphan tests to the limits, and brings us to question the battered shreds of meaning in our tattered lives. The child’s worst fears come true? One twist in the plot that Disney and many other children’s writers have dared to approach. The loss of a parent…
And with that we come to the downside of being an orphan. The traps one might fall into on the orphan’s journey, and what makes the darker side of the path all the more nightmarish. The victim complex is a hole any of us may get trapped in for hundreds of lifetimes if we’re not careful, and it is here that many orphan types seem to dwell.
The rejection of the crowd and the search for a surrogate family tempts us like the mirage in the desert. We can spend our whole lives searching to fill the hole that our absent parent left, and be led into the labyrinth of the psyche in a most destructive way.
The psychological pitfalls of the orphan archetype certainly proves the ‘danger factor’ of this particular life path and show it is one not to be taken lightly. But it is here that we can ask: What are we really here for? To be ‘happy’ and in a state of acceptance but ultimate stagnation? Or to accept our fate and blossom without the safety net of society? The family may mean love, but it can also mean stifling expectations and commitments that distract us from our true potential and let us stay comfortable for that little bit too long. Before we know it, life has passed us by. The experience of the orphan – if we only let it – can bring about travel and adventure, a hermit-like solitude that brings us closer to that shimmering silence of the whole; to places we’ve seen only in our dreams.
“The child of destiny has to face a long period of obscurity. This is a time of extreme danger, impediment or disgrace. He is thrown inward into his own depths or outward to the unknown; either way, what he touches is a darkness unexplored.” ~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Childhood of the Human Hero).
Could the orphan’s experience also be likened to the dark night of the soul or belly of the whale depicted by Joseph Campbell when charting the hero’s journey? Is it the final and potentially most painful encounter we can possibly have with suffering that will ultimately make us stronger – unstoppable even – but incredibly weak and fragile on the way?
For now the positive aspect of the orphan is the type of person who is a mystery, however cute and humble they appear to be. Chaplin’s Tramp or the innocent Oliver Twist each have a light and fair-weather tale to tell of the orphan, though they are often seen as the epitome of the archetype. As is Aladdin, although the star of the Arabian Nights seems much more concerned with status and riches to be such a spiritual brand of orphan, and in doing so becomes a much more modest and ordinary child of destiny.
Despite this ‘ordinariness’ in each case, the orphan becomes an understated but very pure type of hero, and one that performs the most godly of acts on a daily basis; taking life as it comes and appreciating the present moment for all it’s worth. If this is to be a happy tale the orphan – like all of us, above anything else – needs love.
And so we can safely assume, without dream and the myth telling us as much, that it is love and only love that can lead us out of the dark recesses of the shadow orphan and into the light. A higher love that is unattached to the other; to parent, sibling or spouse.
As Hinduism teaches us, at the end of the tunnel we find ourselves, and we alone can save ourselves from the cold night. Once we have passed through the many stages of suffering; of loss and grief, of loneliness and bitterness, of confusion and compromise, we may finally rejoin the path and even transcend it, without a reliance on any external factor at all, whether it is the pleasure of the senses or a desire for love.
We all need love, there’s no debating that, but once we have detached from the desire for it, only then may we relish in the deep inner well of everlasting love. ‘God’s’ love can be mirrored inside and out; a nirvana, paradise or heaven that goes beyond bliss or the ‘absence’ of suffering. A love that doesn’t end the moment a loved one is taken from us, but everlasting love and compassion for ourselves that connects us to the whole for eternity. A bond that can – and never will – be broken.