William - Thank you for the Tragedies

Whenever I see a film that ends without a clear resolution, I turn to my wife and say “what happens then?” And she knows that her role is to make up a good happy ending. The couple gets married or stays married. The hero escapes his tormentors. The villain is never seen or heard from again. You know – “they all lived happily ever after.” 

So, films with happy endings and films with ambiguous endings work out well for me – as long as Miriam is with me. 

But in many films – just as in real life – things don’t come to a tidy and happy conclusion. 

Tomorrow is Shakespeare day – a holiday celebrated only in this country. William Shakespeare wrote about 40 plays. Some of them are comedies. Some are histories, and about a quarter of them are called “tragedies.” These are works introduce and create sympathy for a character – that show the character’s strength and power - and then follow that same character as a some error or character flaw brings them from the heights of power, success, and reputation to the depths of destruction. 

Tragedies do not exactly fit with my predilection for happy endings. They don’t leave me with that breezy feeling that all is right with the world. 

The truth, though, is that we have a need for tragedy. Life is so much deeper and darker and more complex and ambiguous than “happily ever after” could ever begin to suggest. 

Today, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet are not so much the stories that everyone follows. But tragedy itself – as we might expect – doesn’t go away. 

This may be the ideal example of going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I’d suggest that Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet may well have been replaced by Jade Goody. Amy Winehouse, and Pete Doherty. The language is rather different, but the effect may be much the same. [Note that I’m not saying reading the tabloids is as good for your brain as reading Shakespeare!] 

Millions of us followed the turbulent life of Amy Winehouse as she lurched from crisis to crisis. She was a person for whom we somehow had a quick sympathy and her talent drew admiration from many. 

And we watched as that incredibly talented young woman who had gained a well-deserved level of fame an popularity, then destroyed herself with drugs and alcohol. 

When Amy Winehouse died, it was huge news, although people die in more terrible and senseless circumstances every day. Her story had a special appeal. 

We didn’t really know her, and yet millions mourned her passing. And the word on everyone’s lips was “tragic.” 

The life of Amy Winehouse and many others that are splashed across the front pages of the tabloids are almost classic examples of tragedy. People with much, people who rise to great heights, people who then fall disastrously. 

Why do we care? Why do we watch? Why is it that such stories draw grab hold of us and keep us watching? 

Is it something morbid? Is it a matter of taking pleasure at another’s suffering? Perhaps a kind of envy makes us enjoy the downfall of the might? I don’t think so. I think we really do care and I think that tragedy of this sort touches something much deeper. 

I think the attraction to tragedy is primarily a sign that these stories point to things that are unattended but compelling in our own lives. 

I spent a lot of my youth watching sit-coms, and one of the classic gags was someone shoving more and more junk into the closet to get it out of sight. Well, eventually – and usually when the husband’s boss was over for dinner – that overstuffed closet bursts open spilling its contents everywhere – to the great embarrassment of the husband and wife and to the roar of the laugh track. 

Each of us crams an awful lot of stuff away in some spiritual closet to keep it out of sight. We hide it away because it doesn’t seem at all safe to keep our big existential worries lying around where we could easily trip over them. 

But a tightly packed closet can be a very dangerous thing if we don’t open it up occasionally to tidy. 

Tragedy stories help us to deal with that closet full of worries. But rather than suffering the pain of confronting our fears directly, we get to do it a bit more manageably – from a greater psychological distance. We can feel the reality of life’s tragic side without the immense discomfort of staring our own mortality in the face. 

Tragedy, then, gives us a unique opportunity to look at the reality that almost everything we work for in our lives – all of our achievements – are terribly precarious. 

Tragedy lets us examine - from a safe vantage point - the fact that our lives are finite. Tragedy even give us the chance to consider why we are here in the first place and what this life is really all about. 

Tragedy connects us to some of what is truest and most universal realities of human life: Eventually, all that we accumulate in this life – all the possessions, and structures, and knowledge, and power and fame - it is as nothing in the great expanse of time. 

And in those reflections and with those realisations we can find wisdom. 

In the realisation of the ephemeral nature of our work, we can begin to see the things that really are important. 

Whatever else will be lost, we have this moment, and in every moment we live, we are given another opportunity to bring love and beauty into the world. 

When we know that all we have acquired is so transitory, the importance of the people we love becomes that much more central. 

When we know we will vanish, the impressions we leave behind as a result our caring are revealed to be of greatest importance. 

When we know that our power is as insubstantial as air, then the help we give to others become the true source of power. 

When we know that our names will someday be forgotten, we can also know that our true legacy comes from the ways we touch the lives that remain and the world that holds us all. 

Take care, then, of this moment. 

Tragedies may come tomorrow. We will all surely meet them eventually. 

But in this moment is everything that truly matters. Here, there is the possibility of bringing happiness to another soul. Here, there is the possibility of compassion. Here, there is the possibility of love. Here, there is the possibility of a brighter tomorrow for all beings.