Icarus and the Astronomical Unit
We've all heard the story. Icarus was the beloved son of Daedalus, a renowned inventor. Daedelus had created wings with which he achieved flight. After tooling around in the sky for some joyrides, he figured he would make a set for his son Icarus. Knowing his boy to be a bit of a knucklehead he put down some ground rules (sky rules?):
Wait one hour after eating before you fly.
No buzzing the tower.
Do not fly too close to the sun.
Now after a few instructional flights, Icarus earned his, erm…earned his wings. And so he took to the air. He started out cautiously, obeying the rules of the sky, but soon his daredevil proclivities got the better of him. He earned a bit of a reputation and began pushing the papyrus envelope.
Well, of course, we now know how this ends. Icarus was too arrogant, too proud to listen to his buzzkill dad. And maybe his friends inflated his ego with their oohs and aahs. Maybe he listened to his adoring fans and thought, “What does Dad know? I’m the best there is.” So onward he climbed. He flew higher than any other flier and knew his name would be the stuff of legend. But still he hadn’t reached the sun, so on and upward he flew. Closer and closer he got until…the sun melted the wax holding his wings’ feathers in place, and he fell to earth and died. Daedalus happened to be watching from his own set of wings, and he knew his invention had been the ultimate downfall (literally) for his son.
I envisioned a blog about failure. Mostly it’s just me bitching about my life and struggles with depression. Now my last post promised I’d get a more positive message (actually just get A MESSAGE, any message besides: blah blah life is bad and failure sucks). But darn it I think a lot about this stuff. Like, all the time. Admittedly the negative attitude part of it IS my pessimism and depression. But my new goal, as promised, is to not drag the rest of you down. Maybe then I’ll get more than 25 readers (thank you, you curious few).
Now the obvious course here would be to find inspiration in failure. Everywhere you look – books, movies, blogs, Youtube videos – EVERYWHERE, our culture teaches the lesson that failure is critically important for success. A requirement even. All successful people have at some time failed, usually failed many times. In media, sports, self-help, and inspirational posters, a positive message about failure is EVERYWHERE.
My point is not to take away from that. I get the idea. Failure is a required step for knowledge, experience, character, and growth, all building blocks of the successful person. It’s hard to miss because the failure-to-success drumbeat plays very loud in our society. We suffer very few losers in our culture. And if you’re not winning, you’re losing. So unless failure is a major stepping stone to winning, then it’s just failure, just losing.
That’s just it, though. For every success from failure story, be it in athletics, invention, business, or whatever, there are countless people, lets call them mere mortals, who didn’t go on to brilliant success. What about them? What of the people who just failed? For every one athlete success story there are thousands of players who washed out, most not even making it to the Big Stage, peaking in some minor league equivalent. All of those washouts had a dream. They listened to their sports heroes in those post-game interviews give some inspirational quote and tell the young kids: “Never give up on your dreams! No matter how many times you fail, if you just stick to it, there’s no limit to what you can do.”
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great message, especially considering how many people idolize celebrities, athletes, and the like. They’re inspiring, they’re charismatic, and they have a platform to broadcast their message. For anyone watching any popular cultural media it’s hard to ignore them. So much so that to not accomplish your dreams would seem like it must be from a lack of heart, a lack of conviction, a lack of effort. For the vast majority (basically the 999,999 in a million) of us, it won’t matter how hard we dream…or how hard we strive. No matter what’s in my dreams I will never hit a Major League curveball, save for the occasional foul ball when I extend my bat with my eyes closed resulting in random contact. Is this because I gave up on my dream of the big leagues? Is it a lack of heart? Is my true failure my inability to “tough it out?”
We’re taught that Icarus’ fatal flaw was hubris. His ambition, his ego, his arrogance led him to believe his father was wrong, and that he could actually touch the sun. The metaphor even reinforces the lesson as the goal itself, the sun, is the instrument that melts his wings and causes his demise.
But what if he were an athlete in today’s day and age? Would we tailor the story so that Icarus survives somehow, albeit with significant injury? Would we make the narrative instead about how he made a comeback against all odds? Would we make a lesson of how Icarus learned from his fall? Would we do a montage of him training, sweating, crying, but then building new wings to fly once more, all set to inspiring 80’s rock tracks? Would we have him say something at the end like, “The only way you fail is if you stop trying…” or “If you have a dream, never stop trying, never stop reaching for the sun!"?
But what if that fate just isn't in the cards; what if it's not foretold by the Oracle at Delphi? What if after all of the training, sweating, and more heroic montages than a Gatorade ad campaign, what if Icarus realizes, “Huh. Maybe it wasn’t my lack of effort but instead it’s the frickin’ 93 million miles of space void between me and my goal that stopped me.” (That distance of 93 million miles is approximately one Astronomical Unit, by the way). Our revision of this myth might have Icarus take his flight training and, with Daedalus as lead designer, he creates a huge company that manufactures befeathered wings. He becomes an industrial titan, earning him a place in the Parthenon, Entrepreneur Division.
Or maybe, even further from his dream, Icarus decides flying is not for him. He hands the wings back to Daedalus and goes back to strumming his lyre. His dreams of one day filling massive amphitheaters with adoring fans don’t totally pan out either. Instead we find him playing smaller venues, you know, like the City-State Agoras. Maybe he fills in occasionally as a stage hand when there’s a play involving dudes with wings. His dreams might be only dreams. His lot in life is to know he failed to realize any of them. BUT he’s created his own realities from broken dreams. He’s doing all right.
I may be making the case to become the worlds first and best (actually not the first, and probably just pretty good) de-motivational speaker. Instead of standing on a stage exhorting a crowd to believe they have the potential to do anything in the world, I’ll stand there and tell them that the overwhelming majority of them will not achieve any of their dreams. Not even close.
Am I being negative again? Well, yes and no. I’m saying it’s ok to fail AND it’s ok to say, yeah maybe this was never going to work. My point of calling this website an “Oasis” is to say we all need a little space to fail. Sometimes our society doesn’t care to give us that space. Sometimes we just need a chance to breathe. We need the chance to step off of the hamster wheel and re-evaluate our goals and what those goals mean for us. We need to make sure there isn’t a void of 93 million miles between that dream and us. For some of us, the odds of achieving those dreams are astronomical.