Valuing Ordinary People and Ordinary Lives

The recognition of honest work and ‘ordinary people’ is suddenly ‘in.’ Are we ready to pay attention?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” c. 1560
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” c. 1560 (photo: Public Domain)

Ordinary People was a 1980 film about a “typical” (i.e., upper middle class) Midwestern family that falls apart after one son dies accidentally and the other attempts suicide. It focuses attention on “what could happen to us all,” even in the midst of our success.

It’s a lot like the present moment.

One of the (at least temporary) outcomes of the current COVID-19 contagion is a valuing of ordinary people. Suddenly, the janitor, the farmer, the truck driver, the shelf stocker, and the health care worker seem a lot more valuable than some economists might have pegged them even three months ago. The value of any kind of honest work, the overcoming of the “work respect gap” is suddenly “in.”

Are we ready to notice it?

My son has recently been studying Greek mythology. They read the story of the Greek Wright Brothers, father Daedalus and son Icarus. To remind readers: Daedalus was the great architect who designed the Labyrinth, in which Cretan King Minos kept the Minotaur imprisoned. The edifice was so complex that no one who entered it could find his way out. That is, no one could do that until Theseus, on Daedalus’ advice, took along a ball of string along with a sword to slay the Minotaur, so that he could retrace his steps. Minos’ revenge was to imprison Daedalus and Icarus in the Labyrinth. They escaped by making wings that allowed them to fly out over its walls. The feathers were affixed to frames by wax. Icarus, ignoring his father’s warnings and caught up in the ecstasy of flying, flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, causing the feathers to fall off, and him to plunge to his death in the sea.

Along with reading the myth, the students examined Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, “The Flight of Icarus.” It is an interesting painting because, unless you look closely, you might not notice Icarus. You have to focus on the lower right corner. There are two feet thrashing in the water, and some feathers strewn on its surface.

Most of the canvas is taken up with the ordinary and every day. There is a shepherd tending his flock. There are ships on the water and men on the ships. A farmer is ploughing his field behind his ox. A city on a hill is visible. (It’s supposed to be, after all: see Matthew 5:14). Indeed, not far from the drowning Icarus, a fisherman sits on the shoreline, casting his rod into the water. Like I said, if you didn’t look closely, you might not even notice a man dying.

Yet that is what the painting is about.

It’s entitled after that man. It’s not “Shepherd Tending His Flock” or “Farmer and Ox” or even “Nice Day at the Greek Seashore.” It’s “The Flight of Icarus,” although it’s really “The Death of Icarus.”

In Greek art, one might find sculptures of Icarus and Daedalus. But Brueghel is painting 16 centuries into Christianity, so it’s not just about the two Greeks. It’s about the value of a life. Set in a tranche de vie, a “slice of life,” the value and dignity of a single human person matters: it’s “The Death of Icarus.”

In a COVID-19 world, roughly 50 years headlong into a Culture of Death, we’ve (surprisingly) discovered that the death of a single person matters. Whether it be the triaging bioethicist that wants to tell us some lives are more worth focusing resources on or the green-shaded economist that tempts us to balance potential losses of lives versus potential GDP losses, there has been a healthy pushback in many quarters by invoking the value of human life. Yes, there’s a big world out there, in which traders sail ships, farmers need to plant seeds in their fields, shepherds have to figure what to do with the glut of sheep cheese not being bought by the local artisanal bakery, and the city on the hill copes with lockdown … but the life of dying Icarus matters and should be noticed.

Along with reading the myth and studying the painting, my boy also read a short story, “Ikar,” by the 20th century Polish essayist, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. The author invokes the Bruegel painting (my description above is drawn from him), but uses it as a jumping-off point to recall a June night in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. He describes a superficially “ordinary” early summer night in the middle of the War: overfilled trams with people rushing to get home before curfew, people sitting on every bench in a park to enjoy a last few moments of the evening air, some stores closing. Into this tranche of life steps a teenage boy, whom the author calls “Michaś” (Mikey).

Mikey is so engrossed in a book he’s reading that he does not pay attention to what’s going on around him. So captivated is he by the book that he stands carelessly on an island in the street, trams and vehicles moving closely by. Unspoken is that, among the made-for-the-moment “crimes” in Nazi-occupied Poland, might be reading a Polish book: die polnischen Untermenschen needed no education.

But Mikey’s absorption in his book, like Icarus’s focus on his flight, had consequences. Stepping inadvertently into the thoroughfare, he caused a vehicle to swerve sharply to avoid hitting him. To Mikey’s bad luck, however, the vehicle was a Gestapo car. The men who piled out quickly packed Mikey into the back and probably sped off to Szucha Avenue, the seat of a Nazi (and later, Communist) prison where, as Iwaszkiewicz surmises, Mikey must have “disappeared.”

But the author’s reflections are on how, amid the “ordinary” conditions of that night, nobody even noticed (or at least admitted to noticing) that a young man had been trundled off to his likely death for a momentary inadvertence caused by absorption in what he was doing. A man would die that evening, and did anybody notice? “Men standing next to me debated among themselves which tram was most convenient to take, two distinguished men on the other side of the pole lit cigarettes, and a woman standing next to a basket against the wall cried out uninterruptedly, ‘Lemons! Lemons! Lemons! Lemons!” … [while] other boys ran across the street behind cars driving off, risking being beneath those oncoming ….”

Noticing life around us. After going through my boy’s lessons, I added the story of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. The 28-year-old New Yorker was murdered outside her apartment building; stabbed and raped, no witnesses intervened. The murder of Kitty Genovese served as a wake-up call in her day against the guilty “bystander,” seeing but refusing to see life lost around him. The message was that indifference should not be an option.

“Ordinary people” today are now regularly confronted by death. As a culture, we have been long largely successful in shuffling it out of the public view. COVID-19 makes the discussion harder to silence. Amid ordinary life, amid ordinary people, death has now again become apparent – and, hopefully, not ordinary.