According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
William Carlos Williams
When this started, I wrote a piece titled “When this is over…” about skillful denial. Skillful denial sustains life. Unskillful denial exacerbates the underlying pain by shaming the parts of us that know all is not well. The line between skillful and unskillful denial is different for each person; what is medicine for one can be poison for another.
Skillful denial was on my heart again this week, as I took in the image of a man falling from a plane airlifting foreigners out of Afghanistan.
What is the skillful response to this horror? What good can possibly come from seeing it? What are the ethics behind publishing such pictures?
Twenty years ago, similar questions surrounded the publication of one of the most harrowing images from September 11th — an image of another falling man. Some believed that showing a suicide in progress was disrespectful to the man and his family, and needlessly traumatic to the public. Others saw dignity. A cry against denial.
I don’t know what I would do if I were an editor today.
I know that views about what is needed right now — both locally and globally — diverge wildly. I know that the people I trust admit that we are navigating uncharted waters. And I know that that if I were an editor I might not print the photo, but I would print writing about it. More writing than I’ve seen. More emotion, less analysis.
The editors who choose to bury this story mean well. They too are like the falling man grasping for salvation. They think they are preserving sanity. They think cool-headed talk is the answer to barbarism taking over the free world.
Perhaps they are right. For me, the specific symbolism of this image seems critically important for the juncture we are at.
When a person dies, Jews say: May his memory be for a blessing. May we the living witnesses know what this means for the men and women who are captured dead or dying on our screens. May we find the skill to know when to look and when to look away. May we find blessing in our choice, and tolerance for the choice of others. And may we find the grace to believe that someday this will be over.