Addiction & Recovery

The Icarus Phenomenon

 Icarus was a minor character in Greek Mythology, famous for not surviving the transition from boyhood to manhood. He was the son of Daedalus, an accomplished inventor, who produced an ingenious labyrinth on the island of Cnossus for Minos, the king of Crete. Even Daedalus could not find a way out of his maze. Sometime after building it, Daedalus fell into disfavor with the king of Crete and was condemned to live the rest of his life inside the labyrinth. Because he was his father's son, Icarus faced the same fate.

Icarus and his father were trapped. Ever the inventor, Daedalus built wings of feathers and wax to escape. In theory, the wings would allow Daedalus and Icarus to fly above the labyrinth and off the island to freedom. Just before their flight, Daedalus warned his son to be careful. If he flew too low, his wings would get wet in the ocean; if he flew too high, the sun would melt the wax and the wings would disintegrate.

Icarus took off with all intentions of following his father's sage advice. Away they flew, escaping the labyrinth. Like any adolescent boy, Icarus struggled with parental advice. He found flight awkward at first, but learned quickly and soon flew with the attributes of adolescence--his physical strength made up for his lack of coordination and balance. Also, like many adolescents, Icarus moved rapidly from ungainliness to false prowess. Drunk with his newfound power, he soared higher in the sky, ignoring his father's warning. Daedalus looked around in flight and could not find his son. He peered down at the ocean and saw a small cluster of feathers floating on the water. Icarus had soared towards the sun, his wax melted and he fell to his death.

The myth of Icarus is especially relevant to boys of the baby boom (children born after World War II and up until the Vietnam era). It teaches us about power in our relationship with our fathers. Myths reflect subconscious truth; power can be a dangerous and potentially fatal commodity for a boy as he transitions from boyhood to manhood. The myth of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, teaches by its tragedy. Examining this myth in the light of the psychic experience of our adolescent years can illuminate how we internalize power in our lives as men.

icarus 725049Despite its small place in the vast repertoire of Greek Mythology, the story of Icarus is well known today. This story of a clever father and his willful sons attracts the 20th century audience. This is not by accident. Myths produce a response in us relevant to our own understanding of our lives. Power is often confusing for boys of the baby boom generation. The growth of our culture during that period made us anonymous, and the symbols of power continue to confuse and frighten us. Our fathers, thrust into a competitive and work-centered world, never made the time to guide us in the transition from boyhood to manhood. This experience leaves us uncertain about ourselves and unbalances our relationship with the power of manhood.

The Icarus myth warns us of the dangers of power, but unfortunately provides no solution to our dilemma. Many men are trapped in adolescence, frustrated by fantasies of unmodulated and unbounded power, or constricted in their experience of what it means to be a man. The Icarus phenomenon haunts us in our daily professional and personal lives. It seems all we have to help guide us are the Marvel comic books and, more recently, the spate of successful Batman, Fantastic Four, and other superheroes.


What is Power?

Most men in our society are confused about what it means to be powerful. Accepted symbols of power are often Mike Tyson-like figures--strong in body, but abusive to others. Men who internalize such symbols of power become as tragic as Tyson, full of rage and unproductive. Ghandi, a more proper symbol of power, seems archaic in our muscles-from-steroids society. Power is not rage, control, or domination. Many men 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 man learns about power when his elders exert their power over him. The experience of being the object of another's power shapes and guides how a boy will act when he becomes a man. It is not simply what a young man learns about power, but also the manner in which he learns it, that determines how we will use power in the service of him and others.



How Do Families and Society Teach Us About Power?

Many, if not the majority of men older than 20, grew up with the familial/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 therapist Gus Napier, Ph.D., and Frank Pittman, M.D., among others, have described common evolutionary processes for young men in such families. 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 modeling and the son's own experience, a young man may come to equate manhood with distancing from women. Moreover, our patriarchal society teaches men to relate hierarchically to others. Men typically relate to women from either a one-up or a one-down position, not knowing how to share power equally. Some men view women as having the ability, whether in the workplace or in the home, to give or to take away the aspects of "power" by which the man defines himself as masculine.

Unless the son sees his father as fulfilled and powerfully present in his marriage, the emerging adult man will lack conviction about his own ability to be powerfully present in intimate relationships. A generational pattern often evolves.

Our society both encourages and reinforces men's dysfunctional learning about power. The media frequently portray violence, dominance, and disconnection as unavoidable, even attractive alternatives for men. Our evolving workaholic culture, which supports and is supported by our political-economic system, fosters the separation of male youths from those who might be excellent mentors for them. 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.

 What Can We Learn From Icarus?

In order to learn how to use power and not be destructive to himself or others, a young man 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 using his newfound power (the ability to fly). Young men also need modeling, practice, protection, containment, and a nurturing emotional connectedness with the mentor. Icarus took off without the experience, values, context, guidance, or limits he needed to protect him. Daedalus was unfortunately unavailable when Icarus faced the crisis of his life; therefore, Icarus was unable to draw upon what he needed but had not learned.

In the Icarus myth, the sun may symbolize the laws of nature, or spiritual principles, or the ways of the world. If a man flies in the face of these, he can expect to catch a lot of heat. Power without limits or conscience becomes abusive or destructive. When a young man knows no power greater than himself, he becomes grandiose and omnipotent. He installs himself as God in his own life. Without limits and containment, he cannot truly connect with himself or with others, and he becomes preoccupied with the search for limits (much as all superheroes have a critical and destructive flaw). If men are not given limits when learning about power, they internalize shame as a way of putting a cap their 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 men press their search for containment. Addictions allow people to push against their experience of reality; substance abuse 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 ones place (and boundaries) within a hierarchy, whether in sports or on the corporate ladder. Every social niche provides both a channel for expressing power and limits of that power.

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 one's own power leaves one vulnerable and undefended. Without an inspired and empowering father, Icarus would have flown low and been unable to complete the journey. Or, worse, he would have lived the rest of his days in depression and resignation, trapped inside the maze he inherited. In relationships, such as a man might believe his only power is to veto, to withhold, to withdraw, and to abandon.

To address the power dilemmas they face, men must recognize the causes of such dilemmas, and develop strategies for healing and prevention. There may be a tendency to look at the symptoms, and to work to increase the effectiveness of men's responses to the problem. But, by taking that route, we are again at risk for playing into the seduction of trying to "get ahead" in work, finances, status, or attempts at controlling relationships. To address power issues fundamentally, a man must examine his relationship with power and his relationships with others around power.


Other types of power

The description of power described above may be considered stereotypical masculine power. Founded on control and domination, it also may be referred to as "power over." Yet feminist and recovery movement writers have described alternative forms of power, which a man must learn to use if he is to break free of the power traps that hold on him.

Shared power with ( stereotypical feminine power) is mutual empowerment. Founded on equality rather than hierarchy, shared power is created through interrelationship. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, is one way of viewing such power. Shared-power-with endows people with more power than they have in isolation. Without developing shared power, men are likely to experience threat or challenge, rather than affirmation and partnership, in their relationships.

Spiritual power or power within involves realizing inner potential by making manifest the true self. When the internal self and the external life are aligned in harmony, this gives the unconditional sense of well-being that does not depend on status or performance.

 To grow to be able to use power, men need support and limits, encouragement and containment. A young man needs a personal connectedness with his mentor, in which there are both a drawing out or calling forth of power, and a structure and emotional containment that helps shape it. Men who are learning about power also need information, coaching, a sense of relatedness to others regarding the use of power, and healing of wound and deficits in their personal history with power. Open, honest, and informative communication is essential. Whether informally among friends or in men's groups, couples' groups, individual, conjoint, or group therapy, interpersonal healing is needed.

During adolescence, a boy's peers can exert a profound influence on his 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. A generation of youth that grows up with respect, guidance, and inclusion, however, can draw upon the strengths of those who have gone before them, and has tremendous potential for influencing the world in positive ways. Adult men must continue to develop a culture around the use of power that communicates positive values and behaviors.

While growing up, a young man internalizes the parent-child relationships within which he was raised. He will relate to the childlike parts of himself and others using his experience. He will repeat abuse and neglectful use of power in his relationship with himself and others is that is what he has known. Therefore, symbolic, historic, and developmental healing must occur if he is to grow further, developing and internalizing a parent-figure who is both nurturing and protective, who offers both support and containment. This developmental process is crucial to healthy maturation and happens through interaction with a benevolent mentor with whom the young (or adult) man can test, challenge, and butt heads all-the-while remaining emotionally connected.

Finally, healing can be complete only when the spiritual component is addressed. A man's spirit is the deepest core of his being, his true essence. The man in full recovery communes with that which is most truly he, and connects with the spiritual essence of others. His healing both draws upon and is the expression of the "power within." The life of the man actualizing his power can be seen in the depth of his knowing himself, in his relating in meaningful and intimate ways, and in his contributing to the enhancement of his own life and the lives of others. In the journey of healing, a man must ultimately summon the courage to go deep within his true inner self, search out his true direction, and call forth the power to live a life of balance and meaning.

This article was originally published in Insight Magazine

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