The Ploughman

There’s a good piece in The Guardian today, likening our response to recession, Global economic crisis and a troubled Euro, to the indifference of the ploughman in Brueghel’s ‘The fall of Icarus’.

Nick Cohen writes:

All Brueghel shows of Icarus is a small pair of thrashing legs disappearing into a vast sea. Farmers on a clifftop carry on ploughing the fields and watching their sheep as if nothing has happened.

It’s easy to focus on Icarus – and the reminder that however high we rise, or low we fall, fewer may turn their heads than we imagine. But the ploughman is interesting too. Ignoring disasters is as much a survival adaptation as avoiding them. Human beings are resilient because we plough on.

Yesterday morning, as the kids were clambering on a climbing frame in the park, a bloke let his big aggressive-looking pit bull terrier scour a hole – as he loudly conversed with his mate and quaffed a can of lager.

It bothered me and drew my attention away from my children. I wondered if I should do something. Am I personally responsible? Should I act?

But then a perverse thought came to mind. There are thousands of people behind closed doors in the Victorian terraces in the surrounding streets. Perhaps some are shouting, perhaps fighting, perhaps worse. The world is full of bad things happening at this very moment. But I can’t and don’t set out to fix them all.

So why choose this one to pick a fight over, just because it’s there and noisy? Why worry more about the pitbull than my kids? In fact why worry about it at all. So I focused back on the kids and ignored the dog.

Although it makes me feel bad, I reckon sometimes it’s ok to be the ploughman. As Auden wrote of Brueghel’s painting:

Everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.

The Greeks reckoned all human life was tragedy, usually played out with cruel drama. Some tragedies deserve our attention, some not. Choose your battles as they say, life’s too short and the sun is hot.

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