To be human is to be grounded by our bodies, and we must come to term with their limits
When my high school humanities teacher Mr. Saari assigned a paper on Pieter Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, it reminded me how much this Greek myth bothered me on some fundamental level.
The first time I read the Icarus and Daedalus story, I was annoyed at Icarus for not listening. Daedalus, Icarus’ father, had ingeniously engineered an escape from their prison tower by fashioning wings out of bird feathers and wax. Preparing for their flight, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, as this would melt the wax on his wings. Not only was Icarus set free, he was going to get to fly! All he had to do was avoid the sun and everything was going to be great.
Of course, Icarus gets carried away with the power of flight and flies too close to the sun, his wings melt, and he falls to his death in the sea.
Reflecting on the story again as a teenager, I understood Icarus a little better. Why are we born with minds that want to write checks our bodies can’t cash? Why did I stop growing at 5-foot-10 when other kids were over 6 feet? Why did I have to study trigonometry over and over to understand it, only to forget what I had learned within a week?
Bruegel’s painting spoke to me. It suggested that life offers us three choices: We could be like the plowman and fisherman with heads down, thinking about nothing more than the work of the day; we could be like the shepherd, looking wistfully at the sky; or we could be like Icarus, drowning in the water because we followed our dreams and flew too close to the sun.
To be human is to be grounded by our bodies. They let us experience the world and its many pleasures and pains. They also limit and constrain us. Ultimately, at some point in our lives, they will fail us and we will die.
One of the most important tasks of life is coming to terms with this upsetting reality. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that, possessing the technical brilliance of Daedalus, suggests we can invent our way out of this problem. This makes us susceptible to over-promising self-improvement programs, distracting entertainment and an emerging ideology that suggests we can find happiness if our minds can transcend the limits of our bodies.
That’s not happiness or transcendence, it’s sedation. From Genesis to Revelation, our faith teaches that our souls and bodies belong together. Our bodies ground us in reality. Sometimes we won’t like that reality, but we have to deal with it.
For parents, we have an obligation to help our children come to terms with their bodies as an inescapable part of their identity as a child of God. From an early age, we should remind them they are beautiful. As they get older, we should help them discover and develop their powers through disciplines like music, sports, art and academics. Throughout this development, we can help them see when they have inherited gifts from their family. At 5-foot-2, my daughter who loved basketball was encouraged when we pointed out the speed she inherited from her grandfather.
We also need to form our children’s imaginations so they are prepared to deal with hard realities. At some point, the limits and constraints of the body will make our children feel frustration not unlike that evoked by Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Nothing speaks to this frustration like the truths of our faith.
We feel like we were made to fly. And we are. But first we must accept what grounds us.
Northwest Catholic - November 2019