Beyond Tragedy

A few months ago I traveled to Concord to attend a reunion at my boarding high school. Many words were exchanged between my friends, many things felt, and little of it made sense.

Hugh Koeze wrote a lovely piece about our reunion on his blog where he ponders our motives for coming together. He asks, why did we travel hundreds of miles when a free Skype call could have deepened our friendships? What is it that we were actually looking for? How many people did I really get to know better during our drunken evening? Did we ever really go much beyond small talk? His post provoked me, and we ended up having a few emails back and forth discussing this issue.

Like Hugh, I think there’s some deep psychology going on. We returned to St. Paul’s to reconnect with some story we believe about our life, a story in which we have a home or a group. Hugh, for example, feels unsettled much of the weekend until, at long last, over brunch before we bid farewell, he has recreated the feeling of camaradarie that pervaded our high school years. We go through the rituals of taking photos to construct some identity for ourselves. We were renewing not only our bonds, but also our memories of our bonds.

But, even as we try to relive the memory of a happy time and create happy memories for the future, we confront the loss of our youth, our innocence, our deep and intense friendships of yore. Our reunion forces us to reflect on our life since, and as a result, our reunions were also marked by a tinge of sadness. Hugh writes: “I have real doubts that my friends will ever be as together as we were in high school. That sounds trite, but I believe it’s a real tragedy.”

As trite as it may sound, Hugh is right: Our reunions show us exactly why adulthood is hard. It is hard because to be an adult is to deal with tragedies. As kids, we operated in a safe environment where forgiveness is easy and hurt can be undone. Now actions have real consequences. We can’t just move back to be with our friends or parents. We can’t turn the clocks back. We realize, all of a sudden, that our bodies can’t handle the same amount of alcohol anymore. And we realize that we’ve hurt someone else even if we didn’t want to. We’re also still hurt from some event that we can no control over. A quarter of our lives are behind us and there are no more graduations to look forward to. This might be it. The grind.

~

Recently I tried to help a friend grapple with traumatic childhood experiences. Even after a decade they still bother her on a daily basis. Her memories of alienation make it difficult for her to build deep friendships with strangers even today. She told me that she hates all the people in her middle school because they “robbed” of her good memories of her childhood. I didn’t really know what to say in response. She’s right. She cannot get those memories back. There’s something tragic about it, even though it hardly seems dramatic. So then, how can I help my friend? How can we respond to adulthood?

I can think of a few approaches we might take when confronted with a tragedy.

We can tell ourselves a story that makes us feel better. This is what my high school friends tried to do by returning to SPS. We were telling ourselves a version of a story about our own lives, one that included deep friendships, common identity, and a sense of belonging. And perhaps that is why we started a “War on Terror” in response to 9/11, to pretend to have some control over our destiny. Or why we care so much about our histories.

We can also rely on some simple principles so we don’t feel so lost. We boil the complexity of life into some simple principles or rules of thumb. We look up quotations to make ourselves feel better. We tell ourselves that time will heal everything. Of course stories and principles are really not so different. Both are attempts to simplify the complexities of life so that we might understand better – or at least feel like we understand. Stories and principles go hand in hand; together they describe much of religion and moral philosophy, even self-help books. To deal with the terror of tragedy, we turn to simplication.

Now simplification is unavoidable. The world is too complex for humans to understand otherwise. But simplication is also dangerous. To simplify things is to be untruthful. Any simplification necessarily hides aspects of the true thing. When we try to describe something in prose or in mathematical models, we can never describe it fully. To actually come close to understanding a tragedy requires an nimble intellect. We need the invention of many languages to help us probe and express the truth. We need the diverse arts and the many disciplines of the academy. It also takes buckets of honesty to see things clearly. Only then can we begin to grasp the true stories and true principles. It is real hard work.

You might ask: Can’t we just pretend? Why do we need truthful stories instead of mere story? Why must we work so hard? Surely we don’t need deep understanding to move on emotionally after a tragedy. For millennia humans have told fantastic stories about the afterlife; is that not enough? But, without a deep understanding how can we avoid causing tragedies again? Surely, there is something to the saying: “History does not repeat itself. Fools repeat history.” We can’t merely seek comfort from mythologies; instead we must learn the lessons of history. Proper understanding gives us to possibility to get past some tragedies. Tragedies such as polio, injustice, or war. Our ancestors’ desire for truth has surely allowed us to prosper advance far beyond our hunting-gathering predecessors; we must continue in that tradition. And so it is in our personal lives. Facing up to the truth will help us grow up. It will let us stop hurting ourselves and other others. So, yes, it is not enough to just simplify. We need to actually understand.

But we also need something more. Understanding summons our demons, illuminates them, weakens their spectre, but we may yet need more strength to finally exorcise them. And for that strength I know of no source more powerful than love. Or, if you prefer, compassion, or empathy, or fellowship. I think of the stages of grief after a break-up. It’s horrible at first. Then I go through some process to understand and interpret the events. I begin, perhaps, to see my relationship for what it was or to understand the inevitability of its end. I begin to learn my mistakes. I reorient to a new reality. I accept it and I am content again. Each and every step would be so much harder without the support and love of friends. As George Saunders said, “We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.” The hippies were not wrong; love and understanding constitute our salvation

~

And so, I loved this part of Hugh’s conclusion: “Let’s not be embarrassed about wanting to see each other. I want to see my friends, and I’ll go much further than Concord to make sure I do.” It’s all in there. Empathy and honesty and fellowship. Exactly the things we need to move past a tragedy. I am reminded of Matthew Arnold’s poem: “Ah love, let us be true…” Hugh captures that same sentiment in words that we postmodern 23 year olds understand.

I only wish Hugh’s tone was less wistful in the preceding paragraphs. As much as he recognizes the tragic reality, his tone fails to disguise his wish to be wrong about it. This is understandable; denial often the least painful way of coping with tragedy. The lives in front of us may be depressing. As we grow up, we become dispersed. We get tied down and become increasingly isolated. Jobs. Kids. Mortgages. Then we become empty-nested. Then we die. I have seen nothing lonelier than when my grandma withered away. This happens to people. Each of us. It’s reasonable that we avoid this truth; we wish it away. We curate happy memories for relief; we numb ourselves. We avoid living. We pretend we’re not lonely and think it’s embarrassing.

But, as a response to tragedy, this isn’t enough. Like Hugh wrote, we don’t have to be embarrassed about wanting to see each other. We need not always rely on half-truths. We need not be asleep in curated memories. Instead we can be alive in the moment and do some good before we die. Yes, that darkness may be daunting; things may seem hopeless. So we cling to whatever source of hope and light we have. And we employ all the tools available to help grow that glimmer of hope: We lean on our friendships. We reflect and we deepen our understanding. We meditate or pray. We write and express and create. We open up. We reach out to someone in hopes that they will give meaning to our lives. And in so doing, we strengthen ourselves and we strengthen each other. We weaken our demons and face down darkness. We stop hating and we start to love. Because to affirm life, to move past tragedy, to love – that is greatness. It’s going to be so hard sometimes, but it is possible. I have seen it in a woman who suffered war and destitution.

We must try and we must have hope.