Three Mothers and the Fall of Icarus

Sharon April 25th, 2008

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 
 - WH Auden

My husband’s grandmother used to have a picture of herself and two of her cousins at a birthday party.  They lived in Berlin in the 1930s.  And one day, Eric’s great-grandmother and one great-aunt decided to put two of their daughters on the kindertransport train that took Jewish children out of Germany to safety in Britain.  It was a very hard decision to make - the trip went through dangerous territory, and it looked as though it wouldn’t be terribly long before Britain would be held by Germany.  Certainly both sides were preparing for war - sending the children to London meant sending them to be a target.  And thus far, the Jews hadn’t had too much more than ghettoizing. 

Inge, Eric’s grandmother, was only 12 years old.  It meant taking her out of school and sending her to a strange family’s home, through war, to a place that was soon to be a target.  It meant, in fact, extrapolating from prior trends to say that it was more dangerous to stay in Germany than it was to send your child off alone into a war zone.

It is little wonder that one of the cousin’s Mother, another great-aunt said no, that it was safer for her little girl to stay with her parents, to stay in school, to stay where things were familiar.  So two of the cousins boarded the train, left their parents - one would never see either of them again, one would see her mother, but many years later.  And one cousin stayed behind.  She died in a concentration camp two years later, with her mother and father. 

But I don’t tell this story to suggest that it is always the right thing to react strongly.  Because let us imagine, for example, that the original Nazi desire to simply kick the Jews the heck out of their territory had not culminated the Final Solution, and that other nations had opened their doors to the European Jewry.  Historians have postulated that this is, within the realm of possibility - at first, Hitler just wanted the Jews gone, and had the US and other nations let them in, millions of Jews probably would have lived.

Now Inge was supposed to live with a family in England that would treat her as a daughter.  In fact, while her cousin did go to such a family, Inge went to a family in England who regarded their little Jewish emigree as a servant.  They forced her to work, never sent her to school, and emotionally and physically abused her.  A neighbor girl went to a different family and was shortly after killed in the blitz.  My point being that it is that it was perfectly reasonable for that cousin’s family to say that sending their daughter to England was too big a risk - it was within the realm of possibility that getting on the kindertransport could have been as disastrous for Eric’s grandmother as not getting on it was for her cousin.  But it wasn’t. 

I bring this up because I think it is important to understand that reading the data as I did in my prior post about the crash,  almost never leads to historical certainty.  That is, history, when you live it, feels like life.  There are occasionally those moments of absolute disaster in which you know you are playing a part in something larger, but most of the time, history is just what a lot of people do all day.  And it is virtually impossible to know what to do and when to do it precisely.  And yet, history, and what is happening now, are pretty much the tools that we have to work with. 

The point of my previous post was that it is possible to be in the midst of a historically significant and terribly tragic event, and not really know that you are participating in it.  The current world crisis may reach into my readership, leaving some of them hungry and desperate.  Or rich world denizens may well be able to say later “You hear all these stories about that terrible time, but we always had plenty.” It is, however, unlikely that the residents of Bangladesh will agree with you - crashes are always specific.  Even the Black Death left millions in the Americas who never knew it existed.  It may technically be possible for the world to have a equal opportunity worldwide crisis, but only a meteor crash that instantly extinguished all life would qualify - that is, there will always be people who say “well, that wasn’t too awful.”

So things can be crashing and we still have to ask ourselves “does this apply to me?”  Crashes happen all the time - Cuba crashed.  The Soviet Union crashed.  Argentina crashed.  The Jews of Europe crashed.  Zimbabwe crashed.  And larger crashes happen - they are perfectly possible.  But the perfect equal opportunity crash probably won’t ever happen.  The question is how much any given crisis will apply to you - or rather that’s part of the question.  The other question is this - if the world is crashing down around the poor and the hungry, when do we see it, not as their problem, but as ours?  When do we see it as a world-crash, not a poor-crash?  My own take is that sooner, rather than later, gets us closer to the response we need.

Nor is “crash” a world without multiple valences and meanings.  Dmitry Orlov wrote a superb essay about “The Five Stages of Collapse” - and his central point is that not only is a crash something that can work a whole lot of ways, but that it isn’t, as many people tend to assume, a race to the bottom - that is, saying that society is crashing doesn’t immediately translate to “cannibalism now.”  It simply means that things are falling apart and will have to be put back together in new ways.  It is pretty clear that the ways that it falls apart among the desperately poor and hungry will be different than if the rich world remains insulated.

Ultimately, at some point, all of us stand in the position of those three Mothers, making that agonzing decision - what do we do, what do we believe, how do we react.  And worse, we have to make it for others in many cases - parents have to make it for their children, but also neighbors make it for their neighbors, in a way - people who recognize where we’re going make preparations and move communities in particular ways.  

None of us knows that our reading of historical events is absolutely true.  It is certainly possible to over-react, to say that the sky is falling when what you have is just a little cloud.  It is also equally possible to under-react, to wait too long, to close off your choices, to say that the problem belongs to someone else or won’t come here for too long.  And the truth is, no matter what happens, everyone risks choosing wrongly.  And we don’t know the price of making mistakes.

But we still have to choose.  No matter what we do, we close off some options.  If we look up and see a crash, and live our lives as though we are in one, we choose one way.  We lose the peace of mind we might have had otherwise.  We may lose some time that would have felt normal - and we may choose wrongly.  We may look back and say “I wish I hadn’t listened to Sharon - I got all worried and nothing really happened” or “Things really weren’t that bad - I should have put the money into the college funds, not the farm” or “There was nothing we could do anyway, so I wish we’d just gone to Cancun one more time.”  Or perhaps your regrets will go the other way - there is no way not to choose.  “Wait and see” is a choice that closes off a whole set of options for early response.  “Hurry this way” closes off the option of going the other way.  We can’t not choose. 

And we can’t know what will happen.  As WH Auden observes

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure”

It is never fully possible to know which failures are important.  But what is possible is this. To make the best choices we can with what we know - to be the best Mothers and Fathers to our children and our culture that we can.  To leave as many doors open as we can.  And to decide that when children are falling into the sea, when a million more people are hungry, that this failure is ours, together.


11 Responses to “Three Mothers and the Fall of Icarus”

  1. cycling in hollywoodon 25 Apr 2023 at 8:57 am

    Hi Sharon — just wanted to say that I just started reading your blog recently and you are rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers on the web. Love your writing style and your way of putting everything in perspective, or a multiplicity of perspectives.

  2. Paulon 25 Apr 2023 at 8:58 am

    Wow, an even better essay than your post from two days ago. This post has definitely had an even more calming effect on me. Thank you.

  3. Squrrlon 25 Apr 2023 at 9:21 am

    That may have been one of your best posts ever, actually. It sums up so much to me. It also gives me that much more courage to choose proactively instead of passively. Only one quibble-no matter what happens, I don’t think I’ll regret investing heavily in my home, my family, and my community instead of my hypothetical retirement. If things start to look better later, we can worry about savings then, but we’ll still be glad to have all the things we’re buying now. But I do know what you mean.

    You made me cry, but thanks anyway. ;-)

  4. Christinaon 25 Apr 2023 at 9:21 am

    Beautiful post! You are describing a dark piece of Europan history and you make me feel a bit ashamed - Sweden was one of the countries tha very reluctantly let German Jews in. Our government even requested that German authorities marked passports of Jews with a red “J”, so they could be recognized (and denied entrance).

    But you are perfectly right. We are busy making history all the time but of course we can’t foresee all the consequenses of our history-making. We can only hope that we choose wisely!

    Sending a 12-year old alone to London during the War beacause it might possibly save her life - now that’s a tough decision. And today people from poor countries and war-zones send their children alone to Europe in hope of a better future for them. Some end up in my country - children and young teenagers, sometimes with no family and relatives at all here. May we never have to make choices like that!

  5. Ailsa Ekon 25 Apr 2023 at 10:17 am

    I wonder, is there any movement to bring Haitian children here?

  6. equa yonaon 25 Apr 2023 at 10:39 am

    Really beautiful piece of writing and thinking.

  7. Jen H. in western Mass.on 25 Apr 2023 at 11:10 am

    Wow, Sharon. This post is brilliant. I have been mulling over these themes of choice and reaction and history and open and closed doors for a long time now, in a muddled way, and you just wrote it all up so elegantly. People need to hear this. I am not surprised that interest in your writing is soaring. I am so grateful for your powerful voice and the impact you are having. I know my life is better and more inspired for having read your writings for years- you renew my desire to live my values and try to alleviate suffering. Thank you for giving the world the gift of your voice. The path ahead may be rough but there is comfort in striving for clarity, striving to just plain do the right thing. Oh man, now I’m getting weepy and emotional. Sharon, thank you from the depths of my heart.

  8. Susan Ochon 25 Apr 2023 at 12:29 pm

    About five years ago I heard a radio interview with a historian who had studied the news stories of the Great Depression. He was surprised to see that the bad economic news was not the focus of the news at the time, and even the term “The Great Depression” did not come into use until after the fact. The news of the day was all about celebrities and the well-to-do.

    I was driving through Ohio when I heard this piece. Even though I have thought of it regularly since then, at the time I had no idea that what I was hearing would become a reference point for me, else I would have at least jotted down the historian’s name. I guess I was just proving that we can’t recognize history until after the fact.

  9. Anion 25 Apr 2023 at 1:38 pm

    I think that it can be hard to recognize what is happening while we are in it- sort of like not knowing that the stock market or housing prices or oil had peaked until we are able to look in the rear view mirror. I’m not sure why this is the case- it must be human biology I guess. I think that the relatively slow pace of it all is problematic- gas goes up a nickel a day- not two bucks over night, poor people are going hungry but we are used to the idea of poor people going hungry- just maybe there’s more of them and they’re being more vocal.

    I can see how this trends down- it is really what I have been expecting as the economic dominos start to fall- it just doesn’t happen overnight- so it is hard to really get people’s attention.

    I think that maybe the only way to notice is to document what is happening- record it all- the gas and food prices or shortages, or airlines going bust or companies closing, layoffs, etc- if we see it on paper and there in front of us is the clear trend we will notice. Otherwise it is too easy to forget that so much has changed….

  10. Paula Hewitton 25 Apr 2023 at 4:59 pm

    I have been reading your blog for a while now..and i must say the ‘end of the world is nigh’ post really distressed me, and the last couple have calmed me down. You write extremely well, and I look forward to seeing what you say. I think that if the current/forthcoming crisis doesnt affect everyone, change in the long term wont occur. I have seen some news in the Australian press about peak oil related issues, but it is either hidden of pge 37 or very low key. there is no real sense of urgency, or desire to change. give up lattes? No thanks, but I’ll recycle the cup and do my bit to save the earth - i have friends who think like this and i find myself withdrawing from their company - how can i relate to someone who has so little grasp on reality. i think it will be too little too late for the vast majority of the worlds poor. we are growing veggies, waiting for our fruit trees to crop and walking to school, teaching our kids self sufficency skills…..and all we can do are the little things and hope it works.

  11. Michelleon 25 Apr 2023 at 10:38 pm

    Good post. I’ve found myself loosening
    the parental reins just a little. I want
    to see my progeny happy, while there’s
    still time.

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