Feathers On The Waves

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Listen to “Feathers on the Waves” by Fred Smith

 

The Greeks, as always, had a word for it: tragedy. That’s the first word that came to my mind when I stared at the photo of Jerry Falwell, Jr aboard his yacht snugged up against his wife’s assistant and both of them partially unzipped. The Greeks understood the drama of our lives and how it plays out according to our appropriate respect for or defiance of the gods. Immutable destiny drives the plot of our individual stories and excessive pride or even undeserved good fortune leads invisibly but relentlessly to self-destruction. Hubris, by thinking of oneself as somehow exempt from divine laws, is tried in the public court and the guilty are punished by the goddess Nemesis. What was unfolding last week was a classic Greek tragedy of one reaching beyond his rightful limits by losing his balance and self-control. Jerry’s fate is sealed. It is a genuine cautionary tale we will retell for years as a warning to young leaders.

You may have read the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedalus was a legendary builder and craftsman who created, among many other things, the impossible-to-escape labyrinth for King Minos to capture and keep the half-man/half-bull Minotaur. In return, the King imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in a tower far above his castle thinking it would keep them from disclosing the secret. Instead, Daedalus ingeniously fashioned wings from bird feathers and wax for he and Icarus to escape by flying across the sea. He showed him the dangerous art of flying, moving his own wings, and then looking back at his son. The father warned the son to follow him and stay in the middle course between the sea and the sun so he would be safe and neither burn up or drown. Instead, Icarus was overwhelmed with the ecstasy of flight and overcome with the intoxicating feeling of divine power that came with it. Daedalus could only watch in horror as Icarus ascended higher and higher, powerless to change his son’s dire fate. When the heat from the sun melted the wax on his wings, Icarus fell from the sky to his death.

“The unhappy father, now no longer a father, shouted ‘Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?’ ‘Icarus’ he called again. Then he caught sight of the feathers on the waves and cursed what he had created.”

Stages of Faith

Of course, there is another way to view the drama of a life that is more hopeful. Friends who have seen Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” come away disappointed that the film did not emphasize his faith as much as they had hoped. To that objection, Stephen Mansfield wrote an insightful review in USA Today: “The challenge is that Lincoln lived through widely differing stages in his journey of faith. There is always the temptation to see his entire religious life through the prism of only one of these stages. To do this means missing the grand tapestry of faith that Lincoln wove during years of spiritual struggle.”

When I look at the tapestry of Jerry Falwell’s life it may be a three-act play and not a Greek tragedy.

In a three-act play each act serves a unique purpose. The first act is used to establish the main character and the world they live in. Somewhere in the opening act an incident occurs that confronts him and leads to the first turning point.

In the second act the character attempts to resolve the problem only to find themselves in a worse situation. Here they learn who they are and what they are capable of to deal with the defining challenge.

The third act features the resolution of the story but is also the source of the most intense point before the climax.

As I write this I am wondering if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “There are no second acts in American lives” is true for Falwell. Clearly, there was a second and third act for Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln we meet in the first act of his life is far different from the man we revere as one of our greatest Presidents. Yet, if we dipped into any isolated period of his life we would have misread him. He was complex and inconsistent but he grew into who he was at the end of his life.

The Board of Liberty has announced that Jerry is on an indefinite leave and we can read that as the final judgment of Nemesis or as the beginning of the second act where he learns who he is and whether or not his life will have a resolution.

Proverbs 29:3 says, “A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father.” That is my hope for Jerry and for his father’s creation. That would be a more fitting end to the tale.

Art by Rene Milot

You can purchase my book “Where The Light Divides” here.

 

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Showing 11 comments
  • Avatar
    Mark Taylor
    Reply

    Fred, thanks for this insightful assessment of Falwell’s foolishness. The parallel with the story of Icarus is chilling. May we all learn from the experience of others as we humble ourselves before God and the people in our spheres of influence.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Mark – I hope it is the second scenario and not the first.

  • Avatar
    tony
    Reply

    I’m skeptical we’ll see Falwell again. If we’d had the world wide web, facebook, etc. back in the 1800s, Lincoln probably would’ve never attained the Presidency. Makes one wonder if social media is, in total, a net positive for our Society.

  • Avatar
    Terry Parker
    Reply

    Interesting comments Fred. Hopefully this one will end well. There must be two sides to the story, but we shall see.

  • Avatar
    Dave Donaldson
    Reply

    Brilliantly written and a stark warning to any leader seeking the public spotlight. It’s a two-edged sword!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Dave. I think one side is sharper than the other!

      • Avatar
        Dave Donaldson
        Reply

        Interesting! Which side and why?

        • Fred Smith
          Fred Smith
          Reply

          The side with which you hack your way to the top is not as sharp as the side that cuts you down when you get there.

          • Avatar
            Dave Donaldson

            So true! The spotlights edge can however serve as a sharp deterrent against aberrant behavior even while hacking your way to the so called top

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