Tragedy. It’s not just the play genre of Julius Caesar that my students are studying in English class. There are three children in Nashville who will never read Shakespeare after a senseless shooting at a Christian school. We may prefer the comedies, but what do we do when life’s writing tragedies all around us?
Cry? Pray? Question? Read, write, talk about it? Grief is unique, with its one-size-fits-all phases, but for the women I’m holding close these days, I’ve found connecting with others during tragedy helps shift perspective in subtle but necessary ways. When I ran the 400 m hurdles in high school, I endured past the point of giving up because I could see the finish line. With a known end, a steady combination of speed and endurance may be enough, but the grieving process isn’t a competition. How can you race when there’s no end in sight?
In literature, we define a tragedy as a series of events that ends badly for our main character, but it’s not always so simple. In class today, we witnessed foreshadowing that indicates things might end badly for a lot of our characters, and from a third-person disconnect, we can track the flaws that lead to their varied downfalls. In Nashville last week, six breathing protagonists met their ends, and perhaps the only “flaw” was ignorance that they’d not have more breaths to take.
In literature, there is also purpose to tragedy. Shakespeare didn’t simply craft nearly 300,000 words into 45,000 lines of iambic pentameter for entertainment, or he’d have stuck to comedy and history. When I taught Julius Caesar at the beginning of my career in Nashville, we acted the play out in costume on stage in my room. Those cast as the main characters knew they’d be met with a tragic end, and it didn’t matter if they were playing Brutus or Cassius, a tragic hero or a villain. Both were necessary to tell a story that brought catharsis.
That’s the purpose. Catharsis is essentially a purging of negative emotions. A play, for example, allows us to safely participate in an emotional adventure, releasing our own feelings of tension, grief, fear, or pity while the characters act out a written story with themes, archetypes, and settings to help us process those feelings effectively. Tragedies have tragic heroes with tragic flaws that result in their downfalls.
But that’s in literature. Maybe because my soul was primed, there looked to be so many more than the Christian school. That same day, some of my loved ones were attending a funeral for a teenage boy who’d died unexpectedly of heart-related issues. This week, a friend is attending services for a toddler who drown. It’s only been two weeks since my friend Josh passed away in his sleep. If our grief is measured in the loss of unfulfilled dreams and potential, how could we ever safely release the emotions mounting with each tragedy we encounter?
In life, tragedies don’t always have clear villains or heroes. Spring almost seems the antagonist to me tonight, promising hope, new life, and future growth. The birds chirp as I type into twilight, and so appears my archetype and setting contrast the themes I’m building. Some promises are shorter than others, some lives cut shorter still, and some growth becomes impossibility. When we watch death in a play, we can process our emotions safely. In life, responding to death hurts deeply.
I think that’s why catharsis becomes more important than ever; we can’t see a way out of our grief but through it. Reading books, watching movies, or even listening to music can be a way to process our grief. When we hear someone put into words something we couldn’t ourselves, we connect back to the tapestry all our comedies, tragedies, and histories are making. William Shakespeare wasn’t just entertaining us in iambic pentameter – he was chronicling stories about our shared human experiences, and if you can read between the unfamiliar vocabulary in the lines, you’ll release some feelings. Every time I watch Portia stab herself in the thigh to prove she’s strong enough to bear her husband’s secrets, I see her taking her own life two acts later. There’s a range of emotions all at once.
And if I find my mind is on an unhealthy loop of existential questions I can’t answer this side of heaven, I read the Psalms. My disquiet eases as I encounter the discomfort of King David. We never intersected in space or time, but his thoughts read mind and recorded the words for songs we sing in churches today. When I read scripture, I connect intimately with the human experiences that put life into a greater perspective. War, death, murder, despair, brokenness, loss – these tragedies plagued the world then and now. Birth and death are common to us all, but in the living, we have shared experiences.
I’m convinced that the smaller my perspective, the worse the despair. I’m fortunate to have several women to talk to about the things that make the least amount of sense to me. When we’re connecting in a shared memory of Josh, for example, there is an authentic joy in the recollection of that moment in time. Afterward, a heavy absence replaces it. I’m sure that’s how David felt after Bathsheba’s first son died so unexpectedly, considering everything he could have done differently to avoid that tragedy.
Is it also possible that, beyond catharsis, tragedy could inspire change, and thereby redefine heroism entirely? Take Joshua, for instance. This man took risks to pursue his dreams, and upon news of his passing, I took up my weekly night writing torch after a four-year sabbatical. Why? His life was vibrant, and I can consider the absence of what was or focus on that vibrant influence that is still inspiring me, still prompting me to take risks and pursue the dreams like he would if he still had breath.
As if to put insult to injury, my neighbor boy mowed down a dozen golden daffodils and pink tulips I’d planted in the fall. We’re not weighing tragedies here, it’s just the strewn petals amidst lawn clippings were a visual manifestation of all that I’ve been processing in recent weeks: death amid spring.
When I got home from work tonight, uncertain that I’d manage to keep my commitment to these two-hour Tuesdays of writing what’s on my heart, something candy-apple red caught the corner of my eye. Beside the garden bed was a tiny wonder I hadn’t planted. In fact, I wonder if I’d have even noticed it were my planted blooms still intact.
I had to look it up, but given tonight’s Shakespearean tragedy of choice, the Red Emperor Tulip seems to fit perfectly, and that they are formerly known as Purissima King Tulips tied David back in to that tapestry. What’s more, they’re vibrant, like Josh. The moon is almost full now, and I’d like to revisit some of tonight’s themes. Some promises are shorter than others, so honor them fully from the first second onward. Some lives are cut shorter still, and we extend those lives in memories shared. Some growth becomes impossibility, so you must grow where and when it’s still possible.
And for me, there’s catharsis and growth in connecting, be it with other people, books and movies, scripture, or even nature. The loss of my planted bulbs isn’t diminished by the presence of the Red Emperor Tulip; it’s augmented, sharpened, reframed. This is what going through it looks like when there’s no finish line.