The Child Carries the Divine

Here’s a storytelling principle I use sometimes when I’m trying to evaluate an idea or a story I’m working on.

The Child carries the Divine.

If I have a character who’s a child (this applies as well to animals, both wild or domesticated), I ask myself, “Is there some mystical or transcendent aspect to this character?”

I find it’s almost always true.

This guy may be the exception

I’m not sure what this means, or even how to apply this idea to the story. I’ve just found that it seems to hold water more times than not.

The Divine Child is an archetype. Joseph Campbell tells us that. And certainly we can rattle off a raft of examples, from Jesus to Krishna to the child Apollo, who slew the Python.

The same principle seems to apply to animals. The Black Stallion, Bambi, Elsa the Lion, Two Socks and Cisco, Toto in The Wizard of Oz, and every dog and cat and critter from Lassie to Free Willy to Tom and Felix, with the possible exceptions of Garfield and Rocket Raccoon.

The power element (I’m guessing as I’m writing this) seems to be innocence.

The Child and the Animal inhabit the present moment. The wild wolf or eagle seem to carry what my friend Christy calls “God energy.” They act from instinct. Their actions are uncontaminated by rational thought or hesitation or second-guessing, or even guilt or shame.

When we have a child or an animal as a central character in our story, that story often has its crisis and climax built around them. Addie Loggins in Paper Moon, Mattie Ross in True Grit, not to mention Secretariat and Seabiscuit, and even the shark in Jaws.

The adult human characters must make a moral decision in the climax and somehow that choice revolves around the Child or the Animal, who always, it seems, represents the Good and the True.

Again, I don’t know what any of this means. But it’s interesting to think about, isn’t it?

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46 Comments

  1. Anya Achtenberg on May 31, 2023 at 2:35 am

    At a time when some young people protesting climate catastrophe are referring to themselves as The Last Generation. when suicide rates among young people are shocking, the child, as a member of an endangered group, as a member of the group that holds out ultimate hopes (even while they are sacrificed/trafficked/shot/bombed/homeless/abused/, etc., — their sacredness, their resonance in what we write, for me is tied concretely to meaning, tied to this very moment, and to sustaining life on this planet…For me, it is not so much what they represent in an archetypal way, but what they actually are, that is resonant and needed as presence in our work.

    • ECP Page on May 31, 2023 at 4:22 am

      Thank you for sharing this perspective.

    • Marlene on May 31, 2023 at 8:30 am

      Beautiful stated!

    • Cynthia on May 31, 2023 at 9:48 am

      Anya Achtenberg:
      Truth. So well stated. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Penny on May 31, 2023 at 3:33 am

    This was perfect today! I have a main character who is a type of child (a new lifeform learning). This makes so much sense and helps put him in perspective perfectly in a way I think I’ve been missing, but didn’t realize.

  3. ECP Page on May 31, 2023 at 4:34 am

    I wonder what Kahneman would say about this and whether or not it might open the door to System III thinking — Inspired thinking, added to analytical thinking: System I and emotion-driven thinking: System II. I write about leadership so you might think this conversation isn’t the right place for my comment however, current leadership models are woefully inadequate to address the quotidian challenges and crises of our time. Was William Blake on topic with his Songs of Innocence and Experience?

  4. Jurgen Strack on May 31, 2023 at 4:47 am

    Yes, and add ‘White Fang’ to the list.

  5. Nina on May 31, 2023 at 4:53 am

    Good post.
    I’m thinking maybe, it’s about getting back to the child in oneself. When you see the innocence or pure soul in another you have to ask yourself where is the child in me? That core untainted by external influences? That shows what matters to me instaid of what the world wants you to care about or to be like.
    And… have I stood up to protect that core/source in me?

    Deciding to not let the child in myself down for me was a turning point out of dissappointment with the world into standing up for what is truely of worth and value to myself and others.

  6. Jackie on May 31, 2023 at 5:11 am

    Interesting, indeed. In the children’s novel at the end of my pen, a child and animals tell their story. It’s been a challenge to scrape away the layers of accumulated adult to be fair to their story.
    In a line from the story, the adult figure notes that children simplified everything, and adults complicated orange juice. May we be worthy to tell a tale with childlike honesty and truth? Thanks for today’s post, Steve. Halfway there, with sleeves rolled up, forging to the finish no matter how difficult.

  7. Sven on May 31, 2023 at 5:33 am

    I think it follows the ‘way of things’. For every hero child or animal there will be thousands that are not. Sorry, but an acorn analogy inbound.
    If an acorn falls from the tree, we as observers (readers) can see the potential of what it can become, and to a degree the dangers ahead. But to the acorn, it is just innocently in the here and now, the moment. It may get eaten, trampled fall on stony ground, but equally from that moment it may become the mighty oak and live for hundreds of years. We tend to write about the journey to the tree, not the trampled, mainly as the story would be shorter! But we can include some of those that do not get the chance to grow at all bringing emphasis to the miracle of success. If the acorn becomes the oak tree, that is in equal measure, the way of things and the fact it has could be the divine.

  8. LI Ming Doug on May 31, 2023 at 5:36 am

    Steve,

    I recived your Cheese book.
    Being an econoimic major, I sometimes find some words unfamiliar, but they don’t prevent me to understand the essence of the book

    Life is a battle.

    Thank you encouraging us.

    Doug

  9. bill ouellette on May 31, 2023 at 5:50 am

    It is interesting to contemplate but I wish you knew what it means and could and some insight as to how it works so I do not have to figure it out.

  10. Brian Nelson on May 31, 2023 at 5:51 am

    I said to myself, “It is their innocence” to myself two paragraphs before you wrote it. We have had so many animals come through our home over the years, I have thought about this topic often. I would also add joy. Animals and children are not afraid (or too scarred, too hurt, too ashamed, too jaded) to experience joy.

    I also find this point to be useful in my own loving kindness meditations. I prefer the mediations which begin with someone easy to love, a child or pet, then move to yourself. It is like warming up your love muscles before it gets hard. Still invariably, the moment I drift from wishing loving kindness on a pet or a child and picture myself, I become less loving. So lately I’ve been bringing up an image of my brother and I jumping on our sister’s bed when we were super young. (I was 6, brother 3).

    We were jumping away with childish enthusiasm, laughing–step dad comes in and yells, “Stop jumping on the bed!!!!”

    This is what I remember. Alan and I are then sitting on the bed. Step dad leaves the room and we sit there looking at each other…at first contrite, then the mischievousness only seen in children’s eyes, then slowly begin to bounce on the bed while sitting, and within 30 seconds are back on our feet jumping with total abandon. (Story ends in a spanking, but my brother and I laugh about that to this day. We just couldn’t help it. Beds are made to jump on.)

    20 years ago we rescued a litter of 3-day old kittens. The mom cat was hurting them, which I learned they will do if they feel unsafe. We had zero idea what we were doing. We lost one that night because we didn’t keep them warm enough. Kittens require to be fed & ‘pottied’ every few hours. So for 4-5 weeks we were zombies waking up to feed and stimulate them to go potty.

    One morning around 0300, I was watching the kittens after feeding. Maybe 3 weeks old? Super stumbly legs, like you think of a new born faun. I’m watching them as I’m laying on my side, half asleep, when they begin to attempt to play. It was ungraceful but enthusiastic. It was, at that time, maybe one of the most precious events I had ever seen.

    I, a very cynical agnostic at the time, thought, “Holy crap, this behavior is Divine. They are experiencing and wanting to share joy with each other.” In that moment I deliberately chose to believe it was Divine over any ‘evolutionary adaptive behavior’–that just did not mesh with what I saw. It was simply too beautiful to be ‘an accident of nature’.

    As I type this I see that I’ve always had a romantic/artist’s mind…was just brave enough to admit it.
    bsn

    • Audrey on May 31, 2023 at 8:57 am

      Beautiful, thanks for sharing the kitten story 🙂

  11. Gwen Abitz on May 31, 2023 at 6:11 am

    WOW, WOW, WOW as Ann Lamont would say. What timing. BRIEFLY, I hope: I made a promise to myself that May 29, 2023 was going to be the beginning process of “letting go” of my story I had become addicted to. The story began when I embarked on my Journey Into The Self that began May 29, 1989 experiencing, I was told was: “Grace flowed through me which is an essence that moved through me. A part of my divine intelligence searching for a better way. The part that guides me from pain to healing from past to present from fear to love.”
    Which by the way is AVAILABLE to EVERYONE. For me, Steve, it is the INNOCENCE of every child today, of every child within an adult that has been killed one way or another by politics, religion, race, greed, jealousy and fear.

  12. Barry St. Clair Mascarenhas on May 31, 2023 at 6:13 am

    Speaking of animals, how about Moby Dick?

  13. Stephen S. Power on May 31, 2023 at 6:23 am

    Certainly explains Baby Yoda. And, in a weird way, Lone Wolf and Cub.

  14. Doris on May 31, 2023 at 7:07 am

    “The Child and the Animal inhabit the present moment. The wild wolf or eagle seem to carry what my friend Christy calls “God energy.” They act from instinct. Their actions are uncontaminated by rational thought or hesitation or second-guessing, or even guilt or shame.”

    I am reminded of my younger self as I read this. Pure innocent one who carries the “God Energy.” I am so glad I carry her wherever I go!

    • Audrey on May 31, 2023 at 9:07 am

      I had a recent experience where I have a very difficult, confusing relationship with a relative. At my wits end, after several years, I believe I successfully turned the dilemma over to my “God Power”, or “Heart”. I had a dream that laid out the pure feelings I have relating to this situation and this person. I wrote it all down, not editing with my conscious brain. In writing it, it was important to get every word correct as it was given to me. It felt like I had not written it. And so I felt peaceful about sending the message to the person in question. And not vulnerable, because it was “not me that wrote it”. I am more motivated after this experience to try to come from my heart in the world as much as possible. I believe coming from the heart is the same as coming from the pure divine child.

      • Diane Young on May 31, 2023 at 10:11 am

        But how did your relative react to your “message”?

        • Audrey Thiault on June 3, 2023 at 6:59 am

          Sorry for the delay in response, thanks for your question., Diane. it’s a complicated situation. But I know that my message got through to him in a way that nothing else had. And my feeling is that it’s out of my hands. I’m not expecting any response, or change of behavior, but feel that it’s possible there will be a change. The message from me was more about clarifying the pure love I have for him. It’s some thing for him to take in, and respond or not respond. The real positive on my end is that I know that I am not holding anything back, and there’s no manipulation involved, none of my ego is involved, the message is not contaminated with any of that., and so I have a feeling of peace about it.

  15. Lillian Dìaz zimbelli on May 31, 2023 at 7:16 am

    This resonates so completely to the climatic end to novel, “Among the Living”, I just finished writing. Thanks for validation❣️✍🏽

    • Jackie on May 31, 2023 at 8:49 am

      Lillian, congratulations for penning, “The End”.

  16. J.M. on May 31, 2023 at 7:18 am

    Thank you Mr. Pressfield. I’m trying to think of a way to express how much I appreciate this thought provoking piece. I love that you give no definite answers, but provide examples to get your audience thinking.

  17. Emily Rasmussen on May 31, 2023 at 7:31 am

    Beautiful piece, thank you. I think it is a combination of their innocence and their vulnerability. I was having a conversation about this with a friend yesterday, about why we are so much more distressed when seeing an animal or a child hurting.

    Innocence and vulnerability.

  18. Christina Miller on May 31, 2023 at 7:54 am

    Very interesting to think about! I am 46 years old and still cling to the Black Stallion, the Pie (National Velvet), etc…but even when I was watching a piece on Secretariat during the Kentucky Derby coverage, I started crying watching him race. You can see it, feel it…the divine spark in him. I think that is why we still talk about him or maybe it is the story we have built around him. Either way…I LOVE IT! It always touches the divine within me. (All horses in these examples but this feeling carries over to other animals as well as children).

  19. Frank Gugino on May 31, 2023 at 8:15 am

    The child in legend and myth is the seed of mortal greatness and divine destiny which cannot be denied despite the acts of man to the contrary. Three examples: Romulus, Moses and Oedipus. In Greek myth Thebes was haunted by the prophecy that the son of Jocasta would kill the king and mate with his mother. The king ordered the infant to be exposed on a mountaintop, but shepherds took him in and raised him until Oedipus returned home to fulfill the prophecy. The infant Moses was cast adrift down the Nile to prevent his imminent death, but he was saved and adopted by Pharoh’s family until he could fulfill his biblical destiny. Romulus and Remus, twins of Rhea Sylvia, were likewise cast adrift to prevent their deaths by a tyrant uncle. Suckled by the She-wolf and raised by shepherds they ultimately fulfilled their destiny to found Rome. We are those children with our own destinies to fulfill.

    • Milan on June 12, 2023 at 9:59 am

      I’m guessing Romulus and Remus were turning in their graves seeing what their Rome has become…

  20. Patrick Gillam on May 31, 2023 at 8:21 am

    I love the idea of children and animals embodying God energy. But we have to be careful not to pervert the role children play.

    These days we have a number of stories that center children as our salvation. I’m thinking of the Harry Potter series or “Stranger Things.” The trope disturbs me. It’s our job as adults to protect our children. It’s not their job to save us.

    Years ago I read a child-rearing guide that observed there’s a horizontal line that divides children and adults, and the two parties can never occupy the same side of the line. If the adult drops below the line and starts behaving as a child, the child must and will rise above the line and pretend to be the adult.

    I loved the child Ruth in “A Man at Arms” as I struggled with her otherworldly wisdom, strength and courage. We saw her rise above the child/adult line when Ruth cared for the helpless Telamon. We see it all the time in popular entertainments, as when the older-than-her-years child cares for the alcoholic parent. We want to see it as noble on the part of the child, but it’s usually abuse on the part of the adult. “A Man at Arms,” thankfully, figured out a way to present it as something other than child abuse.

    Children thrust into positions that Ruth found herself suffer later in life. How many of our problems arise from adults robbed of their childhoods?

    If the child in a story can remain a child and thereby inspire the adult to selfless courage, great! That was my experience as a parent. Let the child remain innocent. That’s the child of Matthew 19:14: “But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’”

    Animals can fulfill that spiritual role more easily than children, for animals will not exchange places with humans when the humans start behaving like animals.

    In short, I love the idea of children and animals embodying God energy. But we have to be careful not to create variations on the Magical Negro trope. (Sorry, Steve, if this reference pokes bruises inflicted by criticisms of “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”)

    https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalNegro

    • Jackie on May 31, 2023 at 9:21 am

      Patrick,
      You make many excellent points. I’ve witnessed the harm that comes with crossing the child/adult line and the results of a stolen childhood. I made notes and thank you for the shared wisdom.

    • Nom de Plume on May 31, 2023 at 7:35 pm

      These days we have a number of stories that center children as our salvation. I’m thinking of the Harry Potter series or “Stranger Things.” The trope disturbs me. It’s our job as adults to protect our children. It’s not their job to save us.

      Excellent point. I see the attraction of the trope, that the innocent must save us from ourselves, but you are quite correct. The Last of Us handled that well, methinks; the child Ellie (ok not so innocent) forces the jaded adult Joe to redeem himself in order to be her protector. (I hate the trope of having little kids (even 14 or whatever) be total pottymouths. There’s no shock value in it anymore.)

  21. Jesse Passmore on May 31, 2023 at 8:31 am

    Phenomenal! Thank you.

  22. Rebel on May 31, 2023 at 8:44 am

    You put the needle on the record.
    My heart opens for the divine innocent wisdom of the present moment when evoked.

  23. Barbara on May 31, 2023 at 8:48 am

    I’m trying to think of an animal or child I detested in literature. Can only think of a lioness who left her runt of the litter behind.
    Also, there is a difference between animals who are made to act as people, and animals in the wild.

    Methinks we are all relating to our utter and complete vunerableness, in the end.

    Great post, as always!!!

    • Kate Stanton on May 31, 2023 at 8:55 am

      Well said, Barbara! Even the bullies in movies become anti-heroes once we learn their backstory. It is rare to have a truly bad seed. Serial killers often have terrible upbringings but chose to exact revenge rather than vow to never treat another soul that poorly. As writers, it reminds me of all the shades of gray in between. There is their side, our side, and the Truth. Artists seek truth!

  24. Kate Stanton on May 31, 2023 at 8:52 am

    Beautiful!
    Children aren’t so far removed from purity. I believe life is one slow journey getting back to the essence of who we are at our core! Inspiring stuff!

  25. Kris on May 31, 2023 at 9:49 am

    That is so interesting. The nation’s story which is being “written” today is now centered on children. Whether it is allowing a child to be free to be whom s/he thinks they are re: gender, or protecting a child from possible trauma — it certainly is a battle. It doesn’t seem to be about the kids; their affected numbers are so few. There isn’t a fight over the adults who may transition. BUT in this fight today the children seem to be so symbolic, especially after reading today’s post. I wonder, if I were actually writing this story, if it were my hand talking about the child, how would I write it? Who and how would I script as the good guys and who would be the bad guys and why/how in this story? But yes, the child is at the center of it. The country, it seems, is at war over the children. Interesting. No, I’m not making a political post, I’m just commenting on how art imitates life…. And now, life is imitating art…

  26. C.M. O'Slatara on May 31, 2023 at 11:15 am

    First, I have to say it, Rocket is NOT a raccoon. 😉
    Second, we like the idea of a child, I think, more than the actual child. We believe them innocent. But it is in childhood when we push boundaries, learn to lie, we steal, we do the things we need to do to gratify our immediate wants. Ask my six year old where the oreos are. She won’t tell you. But she took them when I was busy, got a chair, nicked them from the pantry and hid them in one of half a dozen stash spots so she could eat them all. It’s not that she doesn’t want me to have a cookie, its just that she really wants cookies. And she enjoys cookies without thinking about the future, about extra weight or lack of cookies later. A very young child will hit and bite. They have no idea they are causing pain because they feel none when they bite you. They are angry and lashing out. That is all. They have a freedom to live without the burden of conscious– just as animals do. The Pini’s in their Elfquest saga called this ‘the now of wolf thought’.
    But it isn’t from a maliciousness that they act this way. It is survival. They are vulnerable. And because they are vulnerable, they must also rely on us. and THAT gives us purpose. The thing we strive to attain in life. We love children and animals because they offer us purpose. They make sacrifice bearable. They allow us to have time to play, because even as adults we need to play, whatever society says. They give us hope that they will carry on what we were in themselves and their own children. Our laugh, our love for history, our stories. They are a vessel for our memory. We guard them like the treasure they are and in turn they continue down the path se started when we are gone.

  27. Caro Wilcox on May 31, 2023 at 11:38 am

    Excellent points! …also wondering if you’ve seen the latest Guardians of the Galaxy: you might change your mind about Rocket.

    • Jonathan on June 3, 2023 at 9:34 am

      Glad someone else had this thought. Rocket’s journey in GotG3 was very powerful. His line near the end seems consistent with the divine – “You didn’t want to make things perfect. You just hated the way they are.” Isn’t that what God spends a lot of time telling us?

  28. Tolis on June 1, 2023 at 7:29 am

    Thank you very much dear Steve!

    The divine child, or the child that is in union with the wholeness… like it hasn’t eaten yet from the tree of Good and Evil. The Self in all its glory instead of the built-up ego, the defence mechanisms that make us think before acting. The child indeed seems pure, untouched, free.

    Om the other hand I can think of the idea that a person who reaches self fulfillment can be like a child too, only this time not innocent by chance (or lack of experience) but because of having built a whole set of dynamics that are parallel to their purpose in life, as they feel, and having integrated that set within their whole being, and then stop “thinking” about them. Being a child again is this time like a child but in great control.

    I wish you and all a great, inspirational week. May the child be with you!

  29. Anaheeta Z. Kolah on June 2, 2023 at 12:49 pm

    Steven…it means EVERYTHING — you don’t even know how RELEVANT this is to my story and to my life. You are sincerely channeling a divine word that comes through your hands in your writing. Keep in this zone/spirit that you have attached to.

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  31. Milan on June 12, 2023 at 9:59 am

    Yup, is indeed 💖

  32. Royd on July 25, 2023 at 5:35 pm

    I think “Innocence” and “gods” are similar in that they have an element of “not caring.” Not that they are not compassionate of others. For innocence, the child doesn’t “care” or doesn’t feel attached to the world in the way adults are. In To Kill a Mockingbird, It takes the innocence of Scout to see through everyone’s prejudice of Boo Radley. She knows that he’s not a monster, a freak. Instead, she sees his innocence through the gifts in the tree, in the sewing of Jem’s pants, and in saving her life. That moment when she speaks to him, “Hey, Boo” is all that is needed to cut through all the adulting that is settled deep within me. The killer part? Of all the adult priming Scout must endure with the ladies teaching her to be a woman, to the law that can’t save an innocent man’s life, it’s her innocence despite what other’s say that is the real truth – As much as we have to love our neighbors, we have to ignore them, and find our own way of connecting with others. Scout does this by becoming her own woman, asking Boo to take her home, and becoming the mentor (a god/goddess) to Boo by teaching him how to hold his arm out like a gentleman.

    In the end, our innocence and the hero finding their “god’ within, maybe about “not giving a frack” about what others think, removing any hesitations, doubts, etc. in order to achieve what we were meant to be – whatever that is to the person. In the end of the story, we see an “All is Lost” Moment where the hero is forced to give up, relinquish, all of the “adulting” and consideration for the rules, and finds that “hero dies” moment. She/he doesn’t care anymore, he only is focused on saving others. It’s not selfish like the first half of the story. It’s about removing all that we carry that prevents us from becoming someone or something. Like a god.

  33. Adi Kailash Yatra on August 3, 2023 at 10:48 pm

    I love Rocket.

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