The ORPHAN: symbol of eros, pathos, and hope

Mar 9, 2023

A painting of an orphan boy with large, sad eyes, and his heart visible in his chest. A yellow background is decorated with hearts.
Image Credit: Joseph Lee with AI assistance

The archetype of the orphan, closely related to the hero, evokes powerful issues of abandonment, deprivation, and hope. From Harry Potter to Little Orphan Annie from Daenerys Targaryen to Cinderella, orphans who triumph over adversity remind us that healing the inner child is possible.

The factual history of orphans is frequently heartbreaking. In the ancient world, unwanted infants were subject to abandonment or death through exposure. In the US, Orphan Trains moved 200,00 children from NE coastal cities to live with farm families between 1853 to 1929. Journalists exposed the nightmare of Romanian orphanages in 1989, rousing adoption efforts and fundraising efforts. The Canadian government forcibly took native children and placed them in Christian boarding schools under the pretense of assimilation. This tragic history lives on in the collective unconscious.

Many of us have inner orphans. The unloved parts of us shipped off to the unconscious exert a powerful influence over our moods. Our adult selves may feel resilient and resourceful most of the time, but a cruel tone of voice as we’re dismissed from work or a cold shoulder from a lover can awaken our inner child ren putting us in a tailspin. When threatened by abandonment, they can trigger profound feelings of dread and even panic.

In the grip of our inner orphan, we may find ourselves pining to rewrite our childhood, including a cast of perfect parents. Some of us may even question whether we’re adopted because the feeling of belonging somewhere better haunts us. We can suddenly feel desperate and likely to starve even though we have substantial assets in our accounts. Finally, and most painfully, we can feel unloved and unlovable.

The fear of abandonment may send us scrambling to find reassurance from outside sources – asking our family if they really do love us or fawning over a new acquaintance in hopes they’ll stick around. We might hoard food or money, reassuring ourselves that we won’t need to rely on anyone, which is best because no one stays with us anyway. In the grip of this complex, our bodies ache, and we may even feel invisible or unreal.

Working with these feelings seems daunting at first because a moat of distress surrounds the inner child. But if we persevere, we may find an inner treasure. On the far side of our remembered suffering is a part of us that recalls how to love and be loved. And when they return, we will wonder how we ever forgot.

~ Joseph R. Lee


“I am in an orphanage. There are many other children with me as well. I am the oldest of the group; I feel responsible for the group’s well-being since I am the oldest. We are together in a room with wooden floors and ceiling. Suddenly an evil man and strange appears out of nowhere. He is our master. He teargases us; we cannot see or breathe. The gas makes what is in our pockets fall out, knick-knacks, little toys, memorabilia, coins little notes on crumpled paper. What is in our pockets does not have high monetary value, but it is meaningful to us since we are orphans and have nothing else. The evil master collects our belongings that are falling to the floor from the gas. He makes them his. I ache with sadness to lose what was the only remnant of our identity. Suddenly, Komitas (he is a famous Armenian composer and ethnographer) breaks through the door of the room we are in. He charges aggressively toward the evil master. Komitas has a gun; he points and tries to shoot at the evil master. He misses. Komitas turns toward me. His eyes are full of rage but feel vacant and maniacal. I feel Komitas is in a psychotic state. Komitas takes my hand and places it on the gun. He is standing behind me, I am holding the gun, and he is holding my hands. He points the gun at the evil master. He asks me, “Is this the man? The one I need to kill?” I say yes in agreeance. I know this is what needs to happen. I am sad and afraid.”


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  1. Jamie Hulsey


  2. Simcha

    I love the idea of the orphaned part/s setting off flares – that’s so helpful.

    There was something special about your voices in this episode, spacious or exploring a space with voice.

  3. Jacob Berkowitz

    The episode gave me new eyes on a classic 1980 film The Blues Brothers. To quote Wikipedia: “The story is a tale of redemption for paroled convict Jake and his blood brother Elwood, who set out on “a mission from God” to prevent foreclosure of the Roman Catholic orphanage in which they were raised.” It’s a cult classic and, again according to W, “In 2020, The Blues Brothers was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

  4. Frances Earnshaw

    I found this episode quite electrifying. In particular at around 16 minutes, when Joseph is talking about putting away unmet longing, because of having to raise yourself; children of very large families, children of a mother who is depressed, absent, a child who is essentially alone, and the consequences for the adult. Then again at 45 minutes, Joseph is talking about the magical powers of the (ownership) of self.

  5. Maryam Khezrzadeh

    I cam across this piece of writing by Marion Woodman which is very related to the topic. If you are curious this is from her book, “The Pregnant Virgin”, p.119

    “The extent to which mother and child believe they belong to each other destroys psychic growth. At the deepest levels, most children know they do not “belong” to their parents; they feel their sense of unity with all life. In a world in which people possess each other, however, not to belong makes the child feel like an outside. While the resultant “orphan” psychology may be a source of fearful anxiety, in reality it is an affirmation, from the beginning, of spiritual freedom.”


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