“Tragedy is real and by its very nature cannot be explained. Spirituality, accordingly, involves finding or giving meaning to that which cannot be explained or justified.” — Robert Solomon, Spirituality for the Skeptic
In the introductory class on philosophy that I teach each year I ask the students to come up with a list of the worst evils that have occurred in all of human history. This year rape was number one, followed by child molestation. Terrorism, mass shootings, violence toward women, and cruelty to animals were also mentioned.
We can learn from their observations. First, nobody mentioned the Holocaust. Second, all the evils were generic; none were the actions of specific persons. Third, allowing for a certain historical inevitability of such crimes, none of these occurred earlier than 2001. And finally, everything, without exception, fit into the ‘moral evil’ category. No hurricanes, typhoons, tornados, earthquakes, avalanches, tsunamis, or fires need apply. That was all stuff for which there is at least a scientific explanation; the real evil was perpetrated by humans upon each other.
That’s a modern sensibility at work. Unlike people of the eighteenth century or earlier, most of us no longer think of natural disasters as punishment for sin nor do we see a connection between God and tsunamis. These things happen, we say. There’s nothing, really, that we can do about it, although some of my students thought the effects of global warming—rising seas, more frequent and more intense storm systems, and wild variations in temperatures for the seasons—could be traced back to human indifference, corruption, and even maleficence.
When bad things happen to people we slip on our metaphysical raincoats to protect us from the depressing downpour and are thankful that two buckets catch all the meaning we’ll ever need. One bucket is labeled ‘natural disasters’ — what used to be called ‘acts of God’ —and the other bucket is simply ‘moral evil’— that which we do out of ignorance, hatred, bad karma, or stupidity.
Yet, while we live in a world that is taut with globalized connections and wired for instantaneous reaction to horrors, our views of evil are provincial and localized. That’s not to say they are trivial or inconsequential, but rather to note the obvious: what happens to us is of the utmost importance, but the significance tapers off rapidly the farther the effect ripples away from ourselves. In another setting, one of the Marx brothers said something like, “comedy is when you step on a banana peel and fall down a manhole; tragedy is when it happens to me.”
We don’t have much place for tragedy these days. Outside of assigning it to certain Shakespearean plays and young lives cut short through car crashes, we’re almost embarrassed to use the word. We have an egalitarian notion that suffering is personal, therefore individual, and that everyone is entitled to their own version of it. Perhaps because we are resolutely bound to respect another’s suffering as entirely their own we are at a loss for comforting words and we fall back on such stiff, managerial phrases as ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
But as Robert Solomon notes in Spirituality for the Skeptic (2002), it is as tragedy that suffering has meaning. “Whether or not life has a meaning—whatever that is taken to mean—we make meaning by way of our commitments . . . It is by making meanings in life that we free ourselves from the meaninglessness of suffering.”
One of the lessons that we learn, sooner or later, is how much that happens to us is simply out of our control. This runs against our pride and our unbounded faith in technological progress. If things break they will be fixed. And if they can’t be fixed someone will pay. Those who are responsible will be held accountable, and the line of responsibility, while sometimes tenuous, can usually be followed back to a person or an organization. Thus, we look for someone to blame before anything else.
Sometimes we do things that result in tragedy through shortsightedness or negligence or laziness. But sometimes, despite our efforts and all our best practices, terrible things happen that we cannot find sufficient reasons for and we certainly can’t explain them. There is no one to blame, no one to sue. Why can’t we just leave it at that?
There are moments in everyone’s life that are beyond explanation. Reason fails us precisely because there are no categories nor words to express what we are experiencing. In those times we simply gasp in dumbstruck awe and then set about cleaning up, restoring what we can. That is where suffering becomes meaningful in the depths of our tragedy.What reason cannot articulate, spirituality can express through a muscular silence.
There’s another position between the arrogance of reason and the resignation of despair—that of tragic faith. I’m not talking about melodrama or narcissism but of a clear-eyed recognition of the limitations of our lives. The human condition is one of beauty and ugliness, nobility and depravity, astonishing courage and shrinking cowardice. That’s us—all of us—without exception. We are tragic figures because we have such greatness in us and yet we fall so far short. As a Christian deeply drawn to an existentialist vision of life I take the centrality of making meaning as part of the action of faith. A tragic faith is not one of despair but of humility and gratitude. To live in hope and in passion is to live with gratitude and good humor. I did not ask to be born, but I’m here! How cool is that?
When we come to the end of our days, says Annie Dillard in one of her books, we take our leave like guests going home from a friend’s house. The natural thing to say to the host is ‘Thank you!’
Dear Readers: This is the last post here at Wretched Success. I’m moving to Medium, a new site for online writers that’s been developed by one of the co-founders of Twitter. Please follow this link https://medium.com/p/8d338db0e235.