success is not a straight line
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
— William Carlos Williams
In his new book THE ICARUS DECEPTION, Seth Godin takes on the Icarus myth. You know the one: there’s this kid, his dad invents some wings made out of wax, the kid straps them on and flies high. Very high.
The sun melts the wings and the kid plunges down, down, down into the sea.
Not a feel-good Disney kind of ending.
Every culture uses stories to transmit the lessons teaching people to obey – and to encourage others to obey – the status quo. (If you want to understand a culture, get inside the stories of that culture. If you want to change a culture, find a way to change those stories.)
“The lesson of this myth: Don’t disobey the king. Don’t disobey your dad. Don’t imagine that you’re better than you are, and most of all, don’t ever believe that you have the ability to do what a god might do.”
But then Godin adds:
“The part of the myth you weren’t told: In addition to telling Icarus not to fly too high, Daedalus instructed his son not to fly too low, too close to the sea, because the water would ruin the lift in his wings.
Society has altered the myth, encouraging us to forget the part about the sea, and created a culture where we constantly remind one another about the dangers of standing up, standing out, and making a ruckus.”
It reminds me of advice that Cheryl Strayed, writing as Dear Sugar, gave to a young wannabe writer who couldn’t write because she thought she was crud because she hadn’t achieved a certain writerly stature by her mid twenties:
“The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried beneath all that anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes that you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there. It laments that you’ll never be as good as David Foster Wallace – a genius, a master of the craft – while at the same time describing how little you write. You loathe yourself and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.”
Strayed advises the young writer to, as she calls it, Surrender.
Which might be another way of telling her to Accept.
Find the humility to accept this moment simply for what it is; accept the reality you are in; accept the process of creation and through accepting it, give yourself over to it, and then accept what results from that process and let go and begin again.
When we’re grandiose, we won’t create because we don’t want to destroy our illusions about ourselves; when we’re depressed and despairing, we won’t create because we don’t see the point. Too close to the sun or too close to the water; too high or too low; neither is the place where we get any work done.
Recently I was at a yoga/hiking cleansing retreat in the hills of San Diego where I found myself the slowest, most inexperienced hiker in the group. This did not sit well with my ego. I knew I was in trouble the first day at our “small, introductory hike” which was, the guide explained, “forty-five minutes straight up.”
I took the hill by trying to take the hill; which is to say, I charged it. I didn’t last long. Soon, I was beyond winded. Soon, I wanted to cry, or at least seriously ask myself, WTF, WTF, WTF am I doing here?
The guide hung back from the others, by now so far ahead they had climbed out of sight, and taught me what I so obviously needed to know. He advised me not to take such big steps. Take baby steps. And don’t go straight up the hill. Instead, do a constant zig-zag, weaving your way up by tracing diagonal lines across the path. “People tend not to like doing this because it means extra steps,” the guide told me. “But you can climb any hill this way. And anybody can do it.”
It was a revelation. Instead of thinking of the hill as a whole, I chunked it down to tiny goals: I would zig over to this branch, then zag up to that rock, then zig over to this pile of dirt, and so on and so on, baby stepping all the way, until I could look behind me and marvel at how far I had come. I was still the slowest hiker in the group, but I began to realize that that hardly mattered. It just was what it was. (Also, it allowed me to bond with the cute dark-eyed hiking guide.)
I could Accept. I could Surrender to the process and let it carry me up that hill, and every hill that week (there were a lot of hills).
Now, thinking about Icarus, I suspect he got in trouble not because he dared to fly high.
He got in trouble when he went straight at the sun.
He should have zig-zagged.