An Answer to Icarus

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A new thought on an old myth.

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I live uptown, which is a crummy place to live. I know this because my neighbors wear shirts that read “uptown pride.” You never see “Tribeca pride” shirts. Residents of Tribeca don’t need to have pride. They live on a cobblestone street and their doorman looks like Captain Stubing. You don’t need to convince yourself to feel a certain way when you’re riding in your private elevator to a loft that sits on some of the most expensive real estate in America. “Who cares if I don’t feel pride today?” you think. “My shower has more heads than the backroom of a Tijuana strip club.”

If uptown pride shirts were more honest they’d say, “I’d like to live in Tribeca, but I can’t afford it, so I’ll just convince myself I feel proud to live uptown.” Might be too wordy for a shirt, though.

The mentality behind these uptown pride shirts reminds me of the Greek myth of Icarus, which goes like this.

Icarus’s father, Daedalus, a talented engineer, fashioned two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son. After giving Icarus his pair of wings, Daedalus warned him not to fly too close to the sun. Once in flight, Icarus was overcome by feelings of jubilation. He flew higher and higher, ever closer to the sun, and ever more unaware of the sun. Eventually, he flew too close, the sun melted the wings, and Icarus fell into the sea.[Wikipedia]

The common interpretation is Icarus plummeted to his death because he had too much ambition, too much self-confidence, and most notably, too much pride, or hubris. He was carried away by his sense of self-satisfaction and was therefore blind to the danger of the sun.

Though this interpretation isn’t wrong, it is incomplete. It concludes Icarus’s degree of pride was the problem, not the kind of pride he had.

But the quality of Icarus’s pride, not the quantity, was his downfall. It’s the same quality of pride behind those uptown pride shirts.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with pride. Quite the opposite—pride is the natural response to doing what you want, and doing it well. But “doing what you want to do, and doing it well” takes a long time. It’s difficult, too.

So while pride may be the pinnacle of human emotion, it can also be a defense mechanism. Pride is powerful, yet precarious. If you don’t know what you want, or if you don’t do what you want, the next best thing is to fake a sense of pride. And since most people are faking pride as well, nobody can tell the difference.

This deformation of pride reflects what happened to the concept of self-esteem over the past 30 years. Dr. Nathaniel Branden, through his experience as a psychotherapist, discovered the lack of self-esteem was the root of every neurotic disorder. Finally, someone found the human psyche’s linchpin—at least one of them—and Branden had years of evidence to back up his finding.

However, instead of looking at the processes behind self-esteem—that which builds self-esteem—we played the part of Daedalus and took the end result of self-esteem and injected it into our children. We insisted our children must feel good about themselves no matter what they did or didn’t do, which is the exact opposite of what entails self-esteem.

The result of this wasn’t self-esteem, but entitlement. The children of the self-esteem movement didn’t have too much self-esteem, but the wrong kind of self-esteem.

Though nothing demonstrates our ability to fabricate feelings than the obesity problem in America. We think we’re healthy as long as we feel good about ourselves. That sounds nice but what if we built bridges that way? “Hey mister foreman, I flunked 8th grade algebra and I don’t know the difference between steel and aluminum, but I feel really good about these blueprints.”

Then, for some reason, we have an epidemic in America of bridges collapsing. Since psychologists are wired to be priests instead of scientists, they insist the underlying cause of the problem is we don’t feel good enough about ourselves.

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Hubris isn’t having too much pride, as conventional wisdom tells us. Neither is it too much ambition nor self-confidence. Rather, it’s pride without process, ambition without action, and self-confidence without evidence. It isn’t self-satisfaction, but the delusion of self-satisfaction.

Icarus flew too close to the sun, not because of his pride, but because he had no reason to have pride. Wings—like self-esteem, pride, or confidence—cannot be given. They must be earned through thought and action.

If Icarus had built his own wings, he would have had a deeper appreciation for them. He would be even more proud, and he would be free.

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PhilosophyMark Derian