Thursday, September 15, 2005


notragedySome years ago I was driving down a busy street and I saw a young lady standing on the sidewalk. Her face was red and had a look of open-mouthed horror. She was holding a short dog leash that terminated in an empty collar. A few feet away in the heavy traffic was the remains of what had been a puppy. When I think of the word Tragic that young lady comes readily to mind.

Around the same time I overheard a group of women talking about a cat that had been run over. Since the owner of the cat was not present, one of the women felt free to voice her opinion: Well, that's what you get when you let your cat run around loose, she said. She seemed quite angry at the cat's owner for not taking more care to control the animal. To her the story of the cat was not at all a tragedy. It was all about bad management and she was rather cross about it.

In Greek drama "Tragedy" is meant to instruct. Tragedies are cautionary tales that show that innocence and good intentions are not sufficient. The hero can still have hamartia -- a lack of balance or "fatal flaw" that causes him, although blameless, to act wrongly, leading to his destruction. For the lesson to be properly learned it is important for the hero to be without blame. If we are angry at the hero then we will distance ourselves from him, and from his problems, and we will not be forced to examine our own phyches for the subtle errors that tragedies explore.

It is important to remember that tragedy focuses on the results of our actions -- not merely on unfortunate events. I have owned a cat who would reliably make a dash for the door whenever I came in carrying a bag of groceries, knowing that being so burdened I would find it difficult to perform the manoeuvre needed to keep the cat inside -- kicking the cat and slamming the door in one continuous motion. That cat eventually disappeared and I have no doubt that like the cat in the conversation above, she was hit by a car. Tragic clearly, but much of the "fatal flaw" was to be found in the cat herself.

You might think that, since tragedy concerns itself with the results of one's own actions, it would follow that events totally outside of one's control would not be tragic. If someone is walking down the sidewalk and he is is struck by a giant meteor, or someone eles is sitting in her office when a terrorist flys an airplane into the window, where is the action that caused these events? What is the "fatal flaw" that marks the event as a tragedy? There is one. It is a flaw that we all have, in varying degrees. We like to forget we are mortal. We don't always do the most important things first and, if we are suddenly reminded of our own mortality, they often never get done at all.

I think that we, as a society, are afflicted with a petulant refusal to experience tragedy, simply as tragedy and, as a result, we fail to learn the lessons that tragic events can teach us. We insist that our lives go smoothly and, when unfortunate events happen we immediately look for someone with whom we can become angry. If we are personally affected by the tragic events we look for someone else to blame so we don't have to deal with our own lack of preparation -- physical, financial or spiritual -- and, even if we do blame ourselves, self-directed anger is neither a fair nor a helpful response. If we are not personally affected we have an irrational tendency to blame the victim. Well, that's what you get if you let your cat run around loose, we think. It saves us from the pain of empathy and allows us to refuse to come to terms with the fact that our cats might prefer a shorter life in the sunshine, or that our own children might make mistakes and come to harm.

One of the ways we shield ourselves from experiencing the instructive pain of tragic events is to insist on a false dichotomy -- that an event must be either a "tragedy" or an "outrage" but that it cannot be both. If we can find the smallest trace of culpability we will focus on it, and the comfortable, soothing anger it affords us, and ignore the larger part which, being merely tragic, we don't like to think about. We do this so reliably that, when dealing with an event that actually is more of an outrage than a tragedy, pundits can safely assume that in calling it a tragedy they will be understood as saying that the victims themselves were largely to blame.

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