“Icarus’s father [Dedalus] crafts wings for him, but when he flies too close to the sun, the wings melt, and Icarus falls.”Kristine Culp
Recently, I read Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a book that traces the philosophical and historical roots of the inhumane actions of the Vietnam (or American) War. In this reading, I was brought back to the knee-jerk reactions and impassioned days of my youth, brought back to a person that lives within me today, though my relationship with her has changed. As Fred Hamilton, chairman of the Black Panther Movement, once chanted, “I am a revolutionary,” while rallying a Chicago crowd before his murder, so too was I born a rebel. I wanted to tear down the injustices and absurdities I encountered throughout my youth, seeking to build a better way, one that promised freedom, innovation, and divergence.
This trait first surfaced as a toddler in the form of anger, aggression, and demands, and evolved into my ambition for a sport, horseback riding to be precise. It grew further in my teen years as I experimented with drugs, parties, and everything in between, culminating in the sobering disappearance of a dear friend. It was at this moment that I first recognized the inhumanity in others. Few people tried to look for her. Weeks later, we learned she had run away with a drug dealer to sustain her well-hidden heroin habit. I felt startled, both by her concealment and by the community’s apathy. It came out later that those who she was taking the drugs from were the same people that shot up with her brothers, now passed.
My friend was no longer of interest to the public, our community, nor her friends; only her family seemed to care. That was what frightened me the most. I was 16 at the time, having recently graduated high school and living safely at home. After this ordeal, I lost interest in people, especially my friends. I learned to not trust others, to only depend on myself. I dedicated more and more time to my sport. I became solely the ambitious athlete, no longer the provocative rebel. And as my horseback riding career grew, I saw myself as Icarus, but I felt more and more like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. Obsession ate at me, jealousy consumed me, and greed pervaded my being; corrosive are such slow-poisons. My inhumanity began to melt my wings.
After 3 years immersed in my sport, it was time to uphold the one expectation my parents held of me: to obtain a college degree. I signed an offer to be a D1 student-athlete at the University of South Carolina and, after finishing that year’s 2015 Junior Olympics, I packed my life into my hatchback Mazda and drove cross-country from San Diego, California to Columbia, South Carolina with my dad.
It was in this new setting that a strange yet familiar feeling came back to me—a devil-may-care attitude reignited itself. My horseback riding teammates did not like my rebellious nature, but my academic friends and professors received it warmly. Simultaneously, I became enamored with my classes in symbolic logic, language, and psychology. But my schedule as a student-athlete restricted my studies—I did not have the time to be both the academic and the athlete. In addition, I was competing for that year’s 2016 Junior Olympics team with my horse Wolf and building towards a professional riding career. I decided that the university riding team was not necessary for my future plans, so I canceled my contract in exchange for intellectual freedom. Content with my decision, I flew home to compete in the final trial that would determine my spot on that year’s 2016 Junior Olympics team.
Back on the West Coast, Wolf and I started this event with ease. On the last day, however, in between the final two rounds, Wolf incurred an injury. I can still recall his head dropping low to the ground, his back right leg pitched up, and his hoof balancing on its front edge as he refused to move. I can recall the tension rising my body as I searched for answers, stripping his body of the boots, the saddle, the bridle, the braids—only to realize that it was an injury, a serious injury, that was causing him pain. At that moment, I realized Wolf was not okay, he would never be okay, and neither would I.
That day felt like my dreams were thrown down the garbage disposal and ripped into shreds. It felt like my heart was torn into tiny pieces as the Earth continued to rotate around the sun, the entire world impassive, unaware, and silent to the depth of my grief. I knew that Wolf would never recover from this. It was heart-break like I had never felt and it was the loss of a relationship that could never be fully recovered.*
As I coped with the loss of my horse, I tried to hold onto the fragments of my dream. I wanted to piece back together my visions of success and ignore the gaping hole in the center of my life that Wolf once occupied. I found an opportunity on a horse farm in Southern Belgium and I flew to Europe the week after that fateful day. For the rest of the summer, I lived in the basement of a family home and trained with professionals from all over the continent. It was, in short, everything I dreamed.
But I still wasn’t happy.
It was not just a lack of happiness, I was actively depressed. I should have been happy to be back in my element, but I cried daily, cycling through newfound questions and old insecurities. I began to see how the sport changed when horses become about business rather than about connection. I started to anticipate the end of the day when I could curl up in my bed and read a book. Most of all, I missed my student life, my friends, and the classroom. As the summer came to a close, I returned to the States determined to understand the inner turmoil that was festering within me.
With time, I came to see that I had built my life on a false truth–the belief that riding was my one and only passion. I organized my life upon this claim like a house of cards, impressive in form but weak in structure. I came to see that I was likely unhappy well before the downfall and that my love for Wolf kept me holding on to a dream that was no longer for me. There was a time when riding was the source of all my happiness, but that time had come and gone long ago, and I could not even remember when or how this shifted occurred. My wings had melted and, like Icarus, I fell— hard, fast, completely. And I found myself at the bottom of a pit as dark as night and as vivid as ice-cold water.
It is here that I began the years of recovery, reformation, and searching. I consumed philosophy, psychology, and theology trying to come to terms with my self-deception and destitute state. At the same time, I encountered a fracturing of confidence and self-trust that I had never experienced before. I no longer believed in my moral framework, my sense of self, or my perceived reality because I had been wrong, so very wrong about the one thing that had ever mattered. This left me vulnerable, this left me open, both for saviors and predators.
The predators found me, but to be fair I don’t hide well. I was a ball of creative, anxious, and emotional energy, and the southern folk of South Carolina labeled this as offensive, bizarre, and intense. I was discriminated against in passive and subtle ways, as well as overtly bullied. Everything from my style, to my tone of voice, to my sexuality, to my eye contact was a target for criticism. And while my essence was being torn apart by others, I had no line of defense and no motivation to protect myself. I had lost my inner-compass that should have steered me clear from such attacks. I started to believe what was said about me, to take it all in and make the hate speech a part of my self-perception, my identity, and my reality.
But I also had saviors, friends that became family as we bonded over our shared alienation. We were students far from home living in a foreign, confusing land. My closest friends came from the Northern United States, Latin America, and Europe; wandering souls that sought refuge in the hearts of each other. Together, we explored questions of life and mind, of love and loss, as we grew to know each other’s depths, despairs, and passions. My friends taught me to question the pain I carried, the regret I held, and the impoverished self-image I wore. My wingless form, once lying on the ground naked and forgotten, started to heal.
As I started to know myself through my friendships, I grew to believe that, as a person, I was valuable– no matter my accolades or pursuits. And as I recreated my self image, I turned to the spiritual realm and to other cultures for answers on how to build a foundational truth that would not leave me in my time of need. This spurred me to study abroad in Ecuador, where I felt more at home than I ever had in South Carolina. It was in Ecuador that I became free from other’s judgments as I immersed myself in an artistic circle, pursued new questions, and recreated myself through Spanish. I felt power returning to myself and with it the counterweight of truth. This empowered me throughout my remaining time in Latin America as I traveled across Peru, Aruba, Chile, Cuba, and Colombia. It was in these places that I came to recreate myself as someone more than the horseback rider or the discarded Icarus.
My story from here is of continued self-exploration as I pave a path built on truth, morality, and self-knowledge rather than ambition, possession, and greed. In truth, my wounds still feel fresh, so when I encountered these words of Langdon Gilkey, I felt reprieve knowing I was not alone in my mistakes and my pain:
“A man’s morality or immorality stems from the deepest spiritual center of his life—from what has been called by Paul Tillich his ultimate loyalty or concern—that center of devotion in a man’s existence which provides for his life its final security and meaning, and to which, therefore, he gives his ultimate love and commitment.”Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound
I gave my spiritual center to accomplishment, advancement, and my beloved horse, Wolf. These centers were faulty, corrosive, and, ultimately, unstable. When it all disappeared, I realized that faith, true faith, is all that remains when nothing else does. This is what I define as truth, and it is for these reasons that I find myself at Divinity school, looking to find truths from which to construct my life. Yet I remain a rebel with ambition and a horsewoman at heart. I am learning how these truths can live in relationship with each other to, hopefully, check my inhumanity the next time it rears its ugly head. And above all, I hope to never fly so close to the sun, as I cannot return to that dark place again. So a word of caution to all that seek to fly high, understand the belief from which you launch yourself, as it is not static, and it may not be true. And when it disappears, so do you.
Sydney Greer Callaway
*True to this prediction, we put Wolf down three years later after a mysterious auto-immune disease left him crippled and emaciated. My mother and I were with him that day, his final moments forever seared into my memory. His presence in my life cast the brightest light and the darkest shadow, and his final days were no less impactful. Wolf taught me that life is loss, but it is also love. Rest in peace, Lobitocito ❤️