The Icarus Phenomenon


Icarus was a minor character in Greek mythology, famous for surviving the transition from boyhood to manhood. He was the son of Daedalus, a gifted inventor, who produced ingenious labyrinth on the island home of Minos, the king of Crete. Even Daedalus could not find his way of out of his own maze. Sometime after constructing it, he fell into disfavour with king Minos and was condemned to spend the rest of his days inside the labyrinth. His son, Icarus, was forced to face the same fate as his father.

Father and son were trapped. Ever the inventor, Daedalus built wings of feather and wax to escape. Theoretically, the wings would permit them to fly amazingly beyond their labyrinth prison and off the island to sweet freedom. Just before their flight, Daedalus warned his beloved son to be careful. If he flew too low, his manufactured wings would be dampened by the ocean; if he soared too high, then the heat of the sun would melt the wax, causing the wings to disintegrate.

Icarus took off with every intention to follow his father’s sage advice. Away they flew, easily escaping the labyrinth. But like any teenager, Icarus struggled with obedience. He found flight awkward at first, but learned quickly and soon flew with the attributes of adolescence. His physical strength compensated for his lack of coordination and balance. Icarus moved quickly from ungainliness to false prowess. Drunk with his newfound power, he soared higher in the sky, flouting his father’s warning. Daedalus looked around in mid-flight to find his son. He peered down at the sea and found a small cluster of feathers floating on the waves. Icarus had soared too close to the sun. His wings melted and he fell to his death.

The myth of Icarus teaches us about power in our relationships with our parents. Myths reflect subconscious truth. Power can be a dangerous and potentially fatal commodity for boys they transition to manhood. The myth of Icarus and Daedalus, teaches by its tragedy. Examining the myth in light of the psychic experience of our adolescent years can illuminate how we internalize power in our own lives as adults.

Despite its minor place in the vast repertoire of Greek mythology, the Icarus story is well known today. It tells of a clever father and his wilful son, and so attracts a 21st century audience. This is not accidental. Myths produce a response in us relevant to our own unique understanding of life. Power is often confusing for us. The growth of our culture has made us anonymous, and the symbols of power continue to confuse and frighten us. Many modern parents never took time to guide their children from childhood into adulthood. This has left their offspring uncertain about themselves and unbalanced in their relationship with the power of adulthood.

The Icarus myth warns us of the dangers of power, but unfortunately provides no solution to our dilemma. Many of us are trapped in adolescence, frustrated by fantasies of unmodulated and unbounded power, or constricted in our experience of what it means to be an adult. The Icarus phenomenon haunts us in our daily professional and personal lives.

Most 21st century adults are confused about what it means to be powerful. Power is not rage, control, or domination. Many of us define power as the ability to do or act, to exert influence over the environment, to accomplish something, or resist the influence of others. A young person learns about power when elders exert dominance over them. The experience of being the object of another’s power shapes and guides how a young person will act when they become an adult. It is not simply what a young person learns about power, but also the manner in which they learn it, that determines how they will use power in the service of themselves and others.

The majority of young people today over 20 years of age grew up with the familial or sociological phenomenon of distant fathers. Whether that distance was the result of divorce, death, work, addiction, or emotional absence, the effect is often the same. Renowned family therapists and experts have described common evolutionary processes for young people in such families. For example, when fathers are absent, mothers are often left with the task of raising boys to be men, something they can never fully teach. The father’s absence also sets up the son to be the inappropriate, yet likely target for the mother’s anger and unmet needs. From that experience, the son may fear getting too close to his mother. As a result of the father’s own modelling and the son’s experience, a young man may come to equate manhood with distancing from women.

Unless the son sees his father as fulfilled and powerfully present in marriage, the emerging adult man will lack conviction about his own ability to be powerfully present in intimate relationships. A generational pattern often evolves. The task of teaching young men about power is continuing to shift away from fathers, other male relatives, and local elders to much less personal models including schools, large-scale media, and social intuitions such as the legal system. Attempting to learn about the personal use of power from social agents with whom young men are not intimately connected is inherently difficult.

In order to learn how to use power and not be destructive to themselves and others, young people must have the capacity and resources to both channel and contain power. In the myth, Daedalus provided encouragement but limited his advice to cognitive information about how Icarus should use his newfound power. Young people also need modelling, practice, protection, containment, and a nurturing emotional connection with their mentor. Icarus took off without experience, values, context, guidance, or limits needed to protect himself. Daedalus was fatally unavailable when Icarus faced the crisis of his life; therefore, Icarus was unable to draw upon what he needed but had not yet learned.

In the Icarus myth, the sun symbolizes the laws of nature, spiritual principles, or the ways of the world. If we fly in the face of these, we can expect to catch a lot of heat. Power without limits or conscience becomes abusive and destructive. When a young man knows no power greater than himself, he develops grandiose delusions of omnipotence. He installs himself as God in his own life. Without limits and containment, he cannot truly connect with himself or others, and he becomes preoccupied with the search for limits—much as all superheroes have a critical and destructive flaw. If we are not given limits when learning about power, then we internalize shame as a way of putting a cap on thoughts of omnipotent power.

Our legal system provides real physical limits for people who have not internalized social boundaries. But there are a host of subtle, more socially acceptable limits against which many young people press their search for containment. Addictions allow people to push against their experience of reality; substance appears to be freeing at first, but ultimately enslaves the spirit. In a similar manner, perfectionism can be seen as pressing against human limits, procrastination as pressing against time limits, and compulsive debt as pressing against financial limits. Competition may be derived from seeking one’s place and boundaries within a hierarchy, whether in sports or the corporate ladder. Every social niche provides both a channel for expressing power and discovering its finite limits.

In the Icarus myth, gravity represents the imprisonment that results from remaining forever trapped within our past. Having limits and conscience without encouragement to use our own power leaves us vulnerable and undefended. Without an inspired and empowering parent, Icarus would have flown low and been unable to continue the journey; or even worse, he might have lived out his days in depression and resignation, trapped inside the maze fashioned by and inherited from his father.

During adolescence, our peers can exert a profound influence on our learning, development, and values. Our society often responds to its ‘lost boys’ with disdain and avoidance, encouraging the development of an adolescent male counterculture rebellion. However, a generation of youth that grows up with respect, guidance, and faith can draw upon the strengths of those who have gone before them, and has tremendous potential for influencing the world in positive ways. We must continue to develop a culture around positive Christian values and conduct.

I recall a case long ago of a car that left a narrow road near my home and struck a large tree at speed. All four young men in the car were killed instantly. Every time I drove past that tree, I reflected upon the young, blossoming lives so needlessly lost.

It is not just cars, of course. Today young men and women are more likely to die from drug overdoses—especially fentanyl—although tomorrow it may be some other trendy drug. Though different from car racing, the underlying cause of death is the same; the Icarian heedlessness and Hubris of youth within a society that in nearly every way glamorizes speed, drugs, and sex. It seduces young people into dangerous actions, just as the lure of the sun was too great for the son of Daedalus.

If only the young would recognize the dangers of life and their own limits—in other words, if only they would become conservative and wise beyond their years—then little of this would happen. But of course, they do not; in 2022, there were over 105,000 deaths from drug overdoses and nearly 43,000 more from car crashes in the U.S. alone. All told, there were almost 220,000 ‘unintentional deaths’, and just shy of 50,000 suicides.

Most of the casualties of these careless and destructive ways did not value their lives as they should have. The underlying cause is not just that the young are reckless—they have always been so—but that they have become increasingly reckless and dangerous to others in recent years. According to multiple credible sources, there has been a surge of street racing in North America since the onset of the pandemic. The same goes for drugs, gun violence, and suicide.

The Guardian reports that this is due to the young having more time on their hands, but that cannot fully explain their bad choices. Increasingly, the young do not seem to respect the sanctity of life, perhaps because no one has taught them to do so. Their lives are sacrificed because, unlike traditional religions, our culture itself no longer holds life sacred. It is thus unsurprising that hundreds of thousands of young people are sacrificed each year upon the altar of cynical disbelief.

We can learn the sanctity of life in a conservative church, but less than 4 in 10 young adults still attend church regularly in North America, and less than one third of them attend conservative churches. In one survey in the U.S., two thirds of those who do attend church rarely hear anything about the right to life. Where else can they learn that life is inviolable? Not in most films, music videos, television programs, or talk shows; certainly not in newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, or The Globe & Mail.

A sure indication of any society’s values lies in how its members spend money. According to a recent study, average American household spending in 2022 was about $63k, with nearly $40k of that going to housing, transportation, and food. Of the remainder, most went to pay for insurance, health care, and entertainment. The mean for charitable giving was only $2.5k per annum, excluding high net worth families who routinely donate nearly 10x that amount. More money was spent on entertainment than charitable giving, and among the young, that ratio was even more lopsided. Perhaps most shockingly, the average person spent just $35 per year on printed or digital books—not exactly denoting an erudite or thoughtful society.

From just these figures, we can begin to form an idea of the nature of modern society. We are not a reflective, careful, or disciplined population. We spend an average of only two hours per week being physically active, and pay more for one meal out than we do in an entire year on books. Given the materialistic character of our society and what is taught in public schools, it is no shock to learn that most teens and young adults grow up with little respect for the sanctity of life. Indeed, 75% of those under 30 years of age support unlimited abortion. If we are willing to terminate the life of a nine month old child, then what value could we possibly place upon our own lives? Street racing at 200 km per hour might seem eminently reasonable when we are willing to look the other way as well over 1M abortions are committed each year in the U.S. & Canada alone.

The sanctity of life is an ultimate, non-negotiable value. Even those who sacrifice their own lives in a noble cause do so to protect others; but if life is an ultimate—perhaps the ultimate value—it is not regarded as such in our society. Every life is precious and every moment irreplaceable, but the present epidemic of risky behaviour does not reflect these beliefs.

We need look no further than Matthew 10:29 to discover the traditional Christian teaching:

“When birds are sold, two small birds cost only a penny. But not even one of the little birds can die without your Father’s knowing it.”

It is not merely the Judeo-Christian, but all major religions which teach that life is precious: “Nor take life which God has made sacred, except for just cause” (Koran 17:33)

The starting point for Buddhism is the value and sanctity of life. To the Hindu people, all living beings are sacred because they are parts of God and must be treated with respect and compassion. A great many Hindus are vegetarian because of this belief in the sanctity of life.

As Christians, we cannot go about endangering our ourselves or others. This violates the Lord’s Two Commandments, especially the 2nd one:

Any society that fails to teach the sanctity of life to its youth is not a civilized society worthy of respect, nor the inheritors of a culture worth preserving, which is precisely why we are witnessing a de-volution of the West.

It has been said that intellectuals can reduce a city of stone to sand. Unfortunately, this is especially true as today’s “thinking class” wages an all-hands-on-deck war against Western Civilization. The most prominent of these attacks is the DIE (Diversity, Inclusion, Equity) cult, but DIE is not unique in this respect. Less obvious but no less important is how ‘scholars’ now attack Western Civilization by celebrating the tribal “indigenous” cultures which were largely replaced. Such enemies are not romantics after a return to nature by living off the grid sans conveniences; rather, such destroyers of Western Civilization want it utterly annihilated and replaced.

The animus toward Western Civilization invites reversion to the Dark Ages. Since all cultures are equally valid, then why spend billions on modern medicine, for example? Just hire shaman and witch doctors instead, and save a bundle.

This civilizational de-volution is hardly hypothetical. In North America alone, over a million people identify themselves as “pagan” or “witches”. Others hold new age beliefs resembling pre-modern spirituality. Salem, MA, was the subject of a previous GreyMatter commentary. It has become famous as “Witch City” whose annual occult themed events draw huge crowds. According to a recent Pew survey, nearly 30% of Americans responded “none” when asked their religious preference.

According to some intellectuals, praising pagan rituals is hardly misguided. For these intelligentsia, such primitive beliefs are equal to or even superior to Western Civilization. Nor are these admirers anthropologists who might sympathetically depict the traditions of the Inuit, for example. Rather, they champion these tribal cultures. As one article in Science magazine put it:

“Faced with the profound challenges of a rapidly changing environment, society needs other ways to knowing to illuminate a different way forward. Thanks to the leadership of indigenous scholars and allied collaborators, indigenous knowledge is receiving long overdue recognition for its potential to provide solutions for the mutual thriving of lands and cultures. An urgent question is how institutions can appropriately support (and not hinder) indigenous science’s key role in creating a sustainable future.”

That is word salad for: seek advice on solving contemporary Western problems from people barely surviving in the rain forest.

This is not mere virtue signalling rhetoric. Governments in the U.S. and Canada are calling for elevation of indigenous knowledge on such topics as land management, even while noting historical attempts to erase them through assimilation. According to some 54 indigenous scholars at the University of Massachusetts:

“The goal is to identify and advance models of ethical and effective integration of indigenous and Western sciences by creating mutually respectful and reciprocal relationships between them.”

Despite the fact that North American indigenous peoples were 30-60 centuries behind Europe technologically and had not yet even discovered the wheel by the time of first contact, Western and tribal science are to be considered co-equal in terms of solving the world’s most pressing problems.

Meanwhile, the American Museum of Natural History, a prestigious research institution, just spent $19M on a new exhibition featuring the Tling, an Alaskan native population. The displays feature shaman masks and philosophies of spiritual healing. These shamans are described as “doctors”—not witch doctors or faith healers. Though their creation myths and self-reported history are folklore, Museum curators treat these accounts as verified fact. Just picture these curators putting on an exhibition asserting that The Holy Bible was literally true —and then imagine the public outcry. Incredibly, these museum experts see no need to caution visitors that an objective distinction exists between folklore and demonstrated scientific fact.

This blurring of myth with scientific fact reflects a clear ideological agenda. Government sponsorship of the museum virtue signals increasing diversity of voices and perspectives that will enhance cultural understanding. Precisely how obscuring the vital distinction between fact and concocted reality helps anyone is a question to be ignored. Rather, the clear message is that when it comes to truth, there is no need for objective scientific verification if it is presented by the indigenous. We now possess our own ‘truths’; we need only pick ours and then be happy. This adopts Pontius Pilate’s relativist view of truth (“What is Truth?”), and rejects Christ’s absolutist view (“I am Truth”).

Finally, there was celebration of the contribution of indigenous peoples featured at the 2024 Davos meeting, the conclave of the planet’s most powerful political and economic leaders. Indeed, listening to the people from the Brazilian rain forest and similarly primitive regions was a central feature of the conference. Thankfully for those who might have eaten and drank too much, Chieftess Putanny Yawanawa of the Amazonian Yawanawa tribe cured attendee discomfort with a shamanic incantation. Many indigenous experts spoke on the balance of nature and economies while offering cutting-edge technologies incorporating indigenous knowledge. Davos 2024 also launched The Indigenous Peoples Knowledge and Leadership Network, which brings together indigenous experts and representatives across the WEF’s 10 centres of impact—as a space to foster greater public-private cooperation through indigenous knowledge.

However tempting it is to dismiss this fascination with indigenous knowledge as clever virtue signalling, it must be taken seriously. Over time and institutional financial support, the verbiage can grow into the next version of DIE. Nor does focus on indigenous knowledge enhance the diversity of Western Civilization. It is a rival, since the indigenous ‘way of knowing’ explicitly rejects modern science in favour of an incoherent hodgepodge of folk tales, multicoloured noisy ceremonies, and ‘advice’ that is opinion devoid of empirical basis. World leaders are paying fortunes of our money to hear this babble, but how many of them would trust their physical well-being to African shamans? Probably none; but those who follow the money may see big bucks in what is celebrated at prestigious events such as Davos. Will universities soon hire ‘indigenous’ consultants as they now recruit DIE HR functionaries?

The comparison with DIE here is instructive. Three decades ago, who would have predicted that many Western students at elite universities would now believe that science was just the ‘white way’ of seeking knowledge; or that oppressed people should embrace their own ‘knowledge’ rather than empirically tested (white) evidence? Or that wealth should depend upon skin colour, not personal accomplishment? Crazy ideas can infiltrate society, even dominate public discourse, as the current state of Western higher education illustrates.

Celebrating such knowledge invites de-evolution, a return to the Dark Age, or worse. To quote Thomas Hobbes, life would be solitary, brutish, nasty, and short. Who is to say what is the ‘best’ society?

To those who want to reject Western Civilization and its instructive myths like those found in Greek mythology, I say that there are countless sites on our planet that could accommodate them. The 2025 Davos convention could perhaps be held among the Korowai tribe in New Guinea, so that attendees can see for themselves the benefits of killing Western Civilization by destroying its youth: physically, psychically, morally, intellectually, and most of all— spiritually.

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