A deep dive into the meaning of Peter Pan, the perils of avoidance, the attachment to innocence, and the virtue of responsibility.
Estimated read time: 15 minutes
Peter Pan is a standard-issue fairy tale, often encountered in childhood and quickly tossed aside. Much like bike helmets, or an argyle sweater grandma spent her pension on at Christmas.
While the story was softened to cater to kids, it’s a potent modern-day myth and mature tale of tragedy—of a child trapped in limbo on the journey from boyhood to manhood.
Myths are sketched outlines of universal patterns. Lenses we can peer through to make new sense of inner and outer landscapes, and reveal hidden aspects of ourselves.
Alongside insights into the childish mind, shadow work, revolt against the Father, spiritual bypassing, and the capacity to love, this lens provides a clear look at an overarching theme:
Without passage through the fires of initiatory structures, and developing healthy grit, men are exiled to the inner island of Neverland to join The Lost Boys.
There, we’re fated to express the childish archetype of Peter Pan—the peur auternus, in Latin, meaning “eternal child,” or “flying boy.”
Our bodies may change, but we may not come to feel, think, and act like fully developed men. We’re left struggling to operate our adult lives with outdated boy psychology.
We fly away from challenges, and chase a childish brand of freedom. One where we are weightless and unburdened.
Men with boy psychology, or “Peter Pan Syndrome”, have many hallmark traits, including:
- Passivity, and lack of direction and purpose
- Lack of boundaries (being a pushover)
- Victim consciousness (blaming, or rejecting ownership and accountability)
- Passive aggressiveness
- Turning unspoken expectations into resentments
- Lying, withholding, and perception management
- Fear of anger, or confrontation
- Inability to enter, or sustain, romantic relationships
- Preference for pornography over real intimacy.
All of these symptoms point to immaturity. More specifically: A fear of life and responsibility, and constant flight from the darker, wounded parts of ourselves.
Instead of pushing through the gauntlet of maturation into sovereign adulthood, many of us unwittingly take the route of Peter Pan—constantly avoiding confrontation with ourselves and life at large, and wrestling with our shadows.
In this story (which may have been a cathartic flight into fantasy for the author, Scottish playwright Jim Barrie, to process the traumatic loss of his older brother, David, who died in a freak ice-skating accident) we may not find any answers to these problems. But we do find an impressive map of the territory.
(Quick side note: It’s worth mentioning that one of the richest interpretations is actually a coming-of-age story for women. Centered around the female protagonist, Wendy, the characters and setting of Neverland become symbols for aspects of her psyche, as she struggles to mature among the dynamics of her household.
For this context, our focal center will be Peter.)
So, let’s rifle through the storage bin, blow the dust off the cover, and take another look through wider eyes.
The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up
Peter Pan is half-boy, half-bird, and lives on the remote island of Neverland. Liberated from the curse of aging, he’s an eternal child who despises the idea of growing up.
With the ability of flight, Peter embodies the core drive of boy psychology: Avoidance.
Quite literally, he can leave the ground, or Earth, which represents reality and human nature. Our suffering. Character flaws. The inevitability of death. And the burden of building a life.
In the rest of us, “flying” shows up as a reflex to dissociate, or be ungrounded. We flee from discomfort, accountability, and adversity. We struggle to face the hard truth of things, with our chins up and shoulders back.
Rather than walking with self-assured confidence—believing and trusting in ourselves—we enact covert strategies to avoid confronting Earthly life, with all it’s harshness and responsibility.
Common ways we “fly,” or avoid, are:
- Lying to look good
- Playing victim to circumstance
- Video games and pornography
- Distorted new-age spiritual ideals
- Conspiracy theories
- “Playing small” in work
- Drugs, alcohol, or the ego-dissolving high of psychedelics.
We can argue that some of these items have the potential to be healthy outlets, like substances or porn. But they frequently become dysfunctional distraction devices for the boyish mind.
Peter’s surname “Pan” stems from Greek, meaning “all.” This points to the ambiguity of Peter’s identity and the freedom in the infinite potentiality in childhood.
A child is permitted to inhabit a boundless world of dreaming. They’re free from the pressure of committing to a path, or definite self. They can be all things, yet remain nothing—a multitude of possibilities, with no path to actualizing any of them.
This childish avoidance of commitment shows up in many small ways beyond the maturing process.
An artist might become stuck and unable to create when faced with a blank page, or canvas. Decisions must be made. Possibilities must be killed off. And the produced work might not feel good enough in their eyes, which is often a manifestation of a wounded core belief: “I am not enough.”
An aspiring entrepreneur may delay starting a business because their fear of failure outweighs their desire for success. By avoiding action, they can dodge the pain of “getting it wrong,” falling short, or being tied down by commitment.
At the same time, they are condemned to sit with the frustration of never beginning, or never living. Staying in the brainstorming phase of potentiality, and avoiding risk, preserves a false sense of freedom. While moving to actualize ideas within the definite, limited frame of the outer world is much harder.
The Escape from Darkness
A key feature of Peter’s life is stumbling around literally wrestling with his shadow, as it wreaks havoc in unpredictable ways.
As imagined by the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the shadow of our psyches contains the sum total of the darker things we reject and disown. Such as our anger, insecurity, selfishness, arrogance, self-loathing, and fear.
To cope with our fractured mind, and project a functioning persona in civilized society, we bury these parts of ourselves and hide them from view. And as Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will control your life and you will call it fate.”
What is rejected and forced into the shadow directs our emotions and actions from behind the scenes, like a puppet master tugging on the strings of a marionette (a concept that weaves into the story of Pinocchio.)
The fabricated self is much like a piece of embroidery. On the front—what is presented to the world—is the beautiful, cleanly stitched image. On the back, you see the blurred mess of knots and hidden shortcuts used to create the piece on the other side.
In the same way, we put up a “front.” We show the world what we think it wants from us. And we hide what might cause us to be rejected or disapproved of.
Constructing this mask in childhood often involves repressing our anger, lust, and pride. These are conventionally written off as toxic emotions, or “deadly sins,” but each of them serves a vital role in bolstering our mental health as adults.
When addressed and integrated:
Anger becomes passionate assertiveness and inner strength, rather than tortured passivity or destructiveness.
Lust fuels healthy sexual and creative expression, rather than addictive or abusive behaviour.
Pride generates self-love and respect, rather than arrogance, when it’s exaggerated, or insecurity when it’s repressed.
And understanding our core insecurities empowers us to expose limiting thought processes, as well as defuse dramatic reactivity in our relationships, rather than blindly sparking fights or resentfully stonewalling.
In the opening scenes of the story, we’re given a few insights into a boy’s repression of his shadow.
Peter eavesdrops outside the bedroom window of Wendy Darling and her younger brothers, John and Michael, while their mother tells them a bedtime story.
She hears a sound outside and glances over. Peter gets spooked and flies away. But his shadow is left behind. Wendy’s mother finds it, folds it up, and puts it in a locked drawer.
This moment represents the Mother’s (and society’s) instinct to domesticate—to tidy and hide a boy’s shadow and uncivilized nature. This point appears in many popular myths of manhood, like Iron John and Parsifal’s Holy Grail.
Peter returns to the bedroom several nights later with Tinkerbell, his fairy sidekick. They find the shadow and fight to contain it. The commotion wakes up Wendy, where they meet for the first time, and she eagerly stitches his shadow back onto his feet.
This scene could represent a boy’s reliance on women to be his salvation—to heal and stitch him up—or waiting for others to do the work of dealing with the unfinished business of the shadow for him.
In any case, the ultimate message is: Until a man is ready to investigate and integrate his shadow, it will leave unintended trails of chaos in his life, and run the show.
The Lost Boys: An Attachment to Innocence and False Freedom
Peter never had parents or a community, until assembling The Lost Boys—a gang he populated with forgotten children he finds in the Kensington Gardens park in London.
The Lost Boys come to share solace in Peter’s desire for eternal boyhood, which affirms his escapist philosophy as right and noble.
The boys wear animal-print onesies and dine together on imaginary feasts of make-believe food, a note that hints at the lack of sustenance and fulfillment of their realm.
Like many kids, Peter is notoriously narcissistic and forgetful. He is unable to see things from another person’s point of view, remember the past, or grasp the concept of future consequences.
In other words: He is innocent. And this innocence is the birthright afforded to every child.
In the context of law, innocence refers to freedom from the burden of guilt, or being responsible for committing a crime.
In our daily lives, and for The Lost Boys, it refers to freedom from the burden of being responsible—period. And the righteous denial of personal obligation.
But true freedom implies the task of carving a life from a field of near infinite possibility. Which requires a tremendous amount of bravery and personal ownership. Something a boy does not possess.
As the psychologist Rollo May wrote in The Courage to Create, we are called to:
“…confront a no man’s land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us. This is what existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness. To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage…”
Becoming an adult, and entering this forest, requires a certain loss of innocence. We must become our own guardians and caretakers, and take over the steering wheel to navigate our lives.
This is why many primitive coming-of-age initiation rites for boys involve a traumatic experience—such as being scarred or cut, having teeth knocked out, or being thrust into the wilderness alone for days on end.
Elder members of the tribe are trying to kill the innocent, carefree child and forge a sovereign man, who is capable of facing the more brutal elements of tribal life. While such an extreme act is hardly necessary to achieve this aim, the underlying purpose is clear.
But Peter never had guardians, mentors, or tribe, and desperately clings to his innocence—particularly because it absolves him of having to claim responsibility for his destiny.
Together, he and The Lost Boys rationalize their childish brand of freedom with an optimistic twist. Never “growing up” means not aging, or becoming serious, while being able to have fun and be “free” forever.
But this pursuit of false liberation becomes a prison for a lesser life.
Unable to make decisions for himself, a man will live his life in a passive state of reaction, letting others dictate his path for him, and taking the path of least resistance.
The result is summed up well by a line by Chuck Palahniuk in his novel Fight Club:
“If you don’t know what you want,” the doorman said, “you end up with a lot you don’t.”
Revolt Against the Wounded Father
The villain of the story is Peter’s arch-nemesis, Captain Hook, a pirate who symbolizes the wounded and tyrannical father—the kind of man that would oppress his child in order to preserve his own position as the dominant authority figure. Much like the Roman god Saturn, who ate his children in fear of a prophecy that one would someday overthrow him.
Like any tyrant, Hook is a man hardened by fear. In a sword fight with Peter, Hook’s hand was cut off and thrown to a giant crocodile. From then on, the croc stalks Hook and seeks to eat the rest of him.
After swallowing a clock while wrecking a ship, the crocodile was dubbed “Tick-Tock.” Lurking on with an audible click emanating from its belly, Tick-Tock clearly represents time, death, and the devouring entropic force of Nature that will inevitably swallow us all.
At one point, Hook literally lost a part of himself. Rather than working through the fear and trauma of this loss (and stuck in blame for Peter) he takes it out on those around him.
This loss is not so different from the ones that we, and many of our fathers or other male authority figures, may have endured.
Many men lose a connection with themselves and accept a life they never wanted to live, or take on unfulfilling, false ideals of masculinity. In a way, the world has eaten a piece of them. And so, they bitterly lash out at the innocent child—within and without—expecting them to become as compromised, hardened, and wounded as they have.
Peter’s choice to swear off growing up is partly based in reaction to the terrible image of men and adulthood that Hook has demonstrated.
In the same way, a boy may not want to grow up to be like his father, or feels held down by him. So, he prevents himself from fully maturing, or developing healthier qualities of assertiveness and power that his father may have abused.
What seems like a semi-conscious noble act of rebellion becomes the chain that binds him. And being a fighter against authority may even be adopted as a valued piece of identity.
However, a life lived in reaction to authority undermines true sovereignty and freedom. If we’re rebelling against our fathers (which we may do actively or passively, through early unconscious character choices) we’re limiting the expression of our fullest selves.
In Peter Pan, there is little overt reference to spirituality. But it’s an increasingly popular domain in which modern men take flight from responsibility and express this archetype.
With some of the misguided spiritual principles perpetuated in New Age circles, one is able to build fantastic rational justifications for the childish imperative of flight and avoidance—just like The Lost Boys.
For example, the naive spiritual person might say:
“Selfhood is a deception. All suffering lies in the ego, which can only exist in the concepts of past and future. In the now, there can be no suffering. Now is all there is.”
Of course, there is truth in teachings of non-duality. But, for many, parroting such ideas is merely escapism—a convenient misunderstanding of Eastern philosophy; acting as a springboard to leap over the uncomfortable work of understanding the human experience, processing the past, and taking responsibility for the future.
What better scapegoat from personal authorship than simply transcending the notion of selfhood altogether?
Rather than serving self-understanding and integration, the pursuit of enlightenment is twisted into an excuse to bypass the shadow, and becomes a spiritualized safety blanket.
Some spiritualized men also struggle to embrace their edge and anger. It is seen as “unconscious” and harmful. Lately, it might even fall under the category of “toxic masculinity,” and become something they seek to eradicate.
This divorce creates an exaggerated softness and indirectness, which are not useful allies for crafting one’s greatest life, and weathering the inevitable storms along the way.
A dropout mentality is also commonly found in the so-called “spiritual” man. He is more prone to rejecting money, authority, and material life. In some cases, this spurs an obsession with conspiracy theories—like flat Earth theory, or the reptilian overlord illuminati—and paranoia about our reality being an illusion strategically constructed to enslave the masses.
There are clear cases where governments have lied to influence public attitudes, or justify wars. But the excessive suspicion of evil in power is generally an excuse to avoid playing the game, and halts forward movement in life.
This urge to bypass also trickles into the use of psychedelics.
In millennials, it seems that psychedelics are seeing a second spike in popularity, after the initial wave of the major hippie movement in the 1960’s. Perhaps because substances like psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, and ketamine have recently been clinically vindicated as powerful therapeutic tools.
However, many of us are drawn to recreational use as another short cut to states of transcendence, ecstasy, freedom, and pleasure—rather than using them as tools for self-knowledge, and learning to generate those same feelings in an unaltered state of consciousness.
Relationships with Women
Our final, less examined aspect of the story, are Peter’s competing feelings for the characters of Wendy, Tinkerbell, and Tiger Lily.
Each of them represents a different (though very limited) archetype of femininity.
Wendy is the traditionally conservative, nurturing mother.
Tiger Lily, the princess of the indigenous tribe of Neverland, is the wild, fiercely independent woman connected to her nature.
Tinkerbell, a fairy who resembles the form of a real woman, embodies fantasy.
While Peter yearns for the maternal love of Wendy, he is ultimately unable to choose her. Because choosing Wendy implies the acceptance of inhabiting the real world, and growing up.
Choosing the fiercely independent Tiger Lily would demand him to be in a position of strength and self-knowledge to meet her challenge.
So, he opts out and settles for Tinkerbell—a mute, dwarfed, inconsequential substitute for a flesh-and-blood lover.
This choice is the modern equivalent of perpetually seeking satisfaction in pornography, or desiring a sex robot over an actual person, both of which avoid the complications of negotiating a real relationship, and the inevitable heartbreak of loss.
An overlooked trait of Tinkerbell is her destructive impulsivity. At one point she leads Captain Hook to Peter, sends the Lost Boys after Wendy, and almost dies while starting a forest fire—all out of contempt or jealousy.
This side of her characterizes the “crazy-making” nature of relationships men may find themselves in when not operating from conscious, empowered masculinity.
In Peter’s situation, we see several common problematic relationship patterns resulting from boy psychology.
To enter into any deep relationship, we are called to take ownership of our minds, commit, and (usually) release attachment to the freedom of pursuing other options.
We build one path, and assume the responsibility of doing the messy work of co-existing with another imperfect human being.
Once a part of The Lost Boys, it can be difficult to leave. Because leaving implies waking up to the truth of the situation, as well as the turbulent feelings that come with the realization that, for a time:
You’re standing in the middle of a life that’s not working.
This metaphorical departure from Neverland in later stages of life often involves a questioning and even total dissolution of your entire foundation—career, relationship, personality, and lifestyle. It is by no means a comfortable process.
We must also fight against societal forces to leave the familiar comforts of this island. Because a man who harbours a drive to escape, and has no strong direction, is easily occupied, lulled by luxury, and turned into an idle consumer.
Re-entering the real world ultimately requires taking up responsibility for our lives.
For the dwindling years we have left, we accept the role as architects of our destiny. We turn inward to take accountability for how we have been our greatest obstacles.
Jeffery Howard said it well in his own breakdown of this story:
“We can choose the creative life or surrender ourselves to a world with no obvious purpose. We can affirm our personal freedom or let circumstances dictate our lives to us. We can determine what our lives mean to us or we can relinquish that responsibility to traditional institutions and authorities, [and] let society do the work for us.”
To grow and mature, we must surrender flight. And trudge, as wingless apes, step by step forward through the swamp of our lives.
No man is meant to, nor can he, do this alone.
This journey of honest exploration, claiming of authorship, and building a meaningful life, is the one we support each other to take each week in our squads.
When we connect in group, throw our shadows into the middle, and firmly ground ourselves, we begin to transform.
In the fire of challenge, with hands at our backs, we exit the isle of boyhood and become men.
All images credited to: The Walt Disney Company