Friday, August 13, 2010

Parenting and the Lightning Thief

I was watching Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, last night when I began wondering what stories like this say about parents. I don't want to give away too much of the plot in case you're unfamiliar with either the books or the film, so suffice to say, among the things the lead characters have in common is virtually the complete absence of one parent, sometimes mother, sometimes dad. It's acutely felt and evidenced by a woundedness or incompleteness the characters act out.

The theme of being orphaned or partially so and children forced to be on their own, isn't the peculiar property of Percy Jackson. It appears in the Harry Potter series, Superman, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and numerous other tales. Dickens used the device in Great Expectations and David Copperfield. In Jungian parlance, the orphan is an archetype that permits children (and adults, by the way) to envision themselves living and, perhaps, accomplishing great things independent of parental control. Mythologists see this as a key factor in the hero's journey, another archetypal image of growth and development.

In some cases, the heroic orphan is oppressed or abused by caregivers as in Cinderella and, once again, Harry Potter. In others, we see them experiencing complicated relationships with parents -- Rudy and Field of Dreams come to mind. In all of these stories, the children experience longing for the missing parent(s) and go through a process that ultimately leads to mature adulthood, often symbolized by marriage and having children of their own.

We could talk all day about the implications of the orphan archetype and its impact on the psychology of children as well as adults. That describes what I've found on the web, researching this topic, which tells me I'm either completely off base or I'm hitting on something relatively new. And that is to say, we're drawn to this motif because we've become uncertain about parenting since the latter half of the 20th century.

A person could probably count the contributing factors several times on their fingers and toes, but the upshot is, we don't live in the same world as my parents and replicating their parenting style in a new one is problematic. Furthermore, judging from conversations I've had with many of their generation, we think about relationships with our parents to a greater extent and at greater depth than they did about theirs. I don't believe Field of Dreams could have been made in 1945; very few would have understood the reason for it.

As a result, in the attempt to make sense of our confusion about being adult children of parents, having children of our own and raising them in the context of cultural change, we turn to myth and try to relive the fantasy of the parent-less child. To the extent we feel estranged from or misunderstood by our parents, we identify with Percy Jackson and his friends. Having had to find our own way or believing that we did, we feel like Harry Potter, whose idealized parents he saw in the Mirror of Erised (desire spelled backwards).

There was nothing wrong, by the way, with Harry's looking in the mirror unless it led him to do nothing beyond wishing and hoping for what he could never have. It's the same with us. Eventually we have to take the image of what we long for and translate it into something real, making ourselves more capable, more fit for parenting in the midst of change. In that case, a little "mirror time," which is what all of these stories can enable, may really be quite useful.

(Creative Commons image entitled The Lightening Thief by Cayusa via Flickr)
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