Life’s a tragedy and that’s a good thing.
Have you ever listened to a beautiful piece of music and been moved to tears?
Have you ever cried at the happy ending of a movie?
Have you ever been so in awe of a sunset or the stars or the mountains that you felt both important and inconsequential?
In these moments, I think we’re feeling the tragedy of life. But I’m not using the word to mean disaster, I’m using it like Shakespeare and others like him would have.
In literature and drama, a tragedy is a story about human suffering that nevertheless provokes a positive transformation in the audience. Tragedy causes us to paradoxically feel opposing emotions at once.
There is something mysterious about these kinds of experiences. They pull us in two different directions but also leave us feeling satisfied and fulfilled.
What’s going on here? And is there profound meaning to be found in this paradox?
Unraveling the Paradox
The concept of a dramatic tragedy is very strange. How could there possibly be beauty in suffering? I mean, show me the beauty in war or heartbreak or sorrow.
There’s no doubt that life is a dangerous game to play, yet we don’t acknowledge this as much as we should. We take for granted that what we have today we’ll have tomorrow even though we know intellectually that this isn’t how life works.
We know that with love comes loss, with success comes failure, with birth comes death. Yet, how often are we taken by surprise when something undesirable shows up at our door?
I mean, I get it. Life is already tough enough without acknowledging that everything we know and love could be gone in the blink of an eye. But that’s also a fundamental truth of existence — this is how life works. We aren’t escaping from this truth by burying our heads in the sand.
When we experience tragedy, I think we briefly glimpse the full picture of existence. In these moments, we see that beauty and suffering are simply opposite sides of the same coin, opposite ends of a spectrum, and that one cannot exist without the other.
It’s in these moments that we have a flash of insight. We see that our love and loss, our success and failure, our happiness and sadness, our life and death, they’re all one and the same. What we previously took to be separate, we understand are not.
We glimpse a hard truth, which is that the good cannot exist without the bad. And in seeing this truth we understand the irony of wishing the bad didn’t exist — which is that if our wish was granted, none of the good would exist, either.
Moments of tragedy are begging us to stop ignoring and avoiding the undesirable half of life. When we pretend that it doesn’t exist, we live in a fantasy world where we have unlimited time to do all the things we’ve ever wanted. This causes us to take for granted all that we hold dear.
Just think about the last time you ate dinner with your parents or spouse or children. Were you distracted? Did you really engage with them? Or did you act like this dinner was unimportant — just one of countless others?
When we recognize the existence of the undesirable half of life, we are suddenly motivated to value the present moment. When we hold this in our hearts, we realize how dangerous it is to assume that we will have an opportunity to eat dinner with our loved ones again. We see that there is no guarantee.
And that’s exactly what makes it special.
Taking Nothing For Granted
Tragedy helps us to see the preciousness of time. Every day we have a little less of it, and no one knows when it will run out, when it will be too late.
Think of all the time that has elapsed since the moment of your birth. Where has all that time gone? Hasn’t it all been like a dream? It came and went, relentlessly but not maliciously. There was never any promise that time would stop or slow for us. Yet haven’t we wished all along that it would?
We think how nice it would be to slow time or re-live our memories. But maybe what makes everything special is that we can’t.
This, I think, is the lesson of tragedy. If we could re-live any moment of our lives at any time, none of it would have any value to us. Those moments would sit in the basement just like all those pictures we took on our last vacation. We’d never look at them again.
Each moment of our lives has value precisely because we can never return to it, precisely because once it has passed it is gone, forever.
Tragedies help us to see that our time is short and that the moments we have are precious. Each breath of fresh air, each kiss, each look, each smell, each cloudless sky.
Tragedies pull us apart because they take what we fear the most — death and loss and suffering — and make us feel on the deepest level that those are the very things that make life worth living, that make life beautiful.
Thanks for reading!