Embracing a Tragic Sense of Life

Do not go gentle into that good night

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)

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Last week, my social circles were abuzz at the tragic passing of a 35-year-old mother of two. We watched the Facebook updates over the last couple of months as she struggled, and then, last week her husband and children, surrounded by many in our community, mourned her passing. Also last week, an earthquake in Italy killed more than 200 people. In Turkey, near the Syrian border, a 12-year-old (!) suicide bomber walked into a wedding and killed 50 people. While closer to home, most of us shake our heads at the bluster of the American political process and wonder “Is this really what we’ve become?”

At the same time, there have been beautiful sunsets of late, vivid canvases of blue, orange and yellow across the sky and the weather has cooled, hinting at fall. A couple Sunday nights ago on an unseasonably cool evening, I sat with a few friends around the first fire of the year and it was simply gorgeous — beautiful weather, challenging and thought-provoking conversation. I’ve been running again, I’ve lost about 15 lbs since the middle of the summer and I feel good in my body — stronger, with a high sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. I come home from work, and most days I run and then ride my “runner’s high” throughout the evening. Life is good and beautiful.

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These seem to be the twin rails that life always runs on. The beautiful and the tragic, walking hand in hand. Nearly every day we hold on to both; some of us carry the beauty and tragedy in our own bodies. (We met an amazing woman in Texas this summer who actually carries a heart pump in a backpack, and still found it within herself to smile, hike, and enjoy her beautiful family!)

But in the beauty and tragedy, I believe we’re faced with a choice. Some of us wallow in the tragedy — we get mired down in it, all we can see is the darkness, the underbelly, the pain and the struggle. And others of us refuse to acknowledge it. We deny it, stuff it down, numb ourselves with wine, television, and food; we surround ourselves with only best things, insulating ourselves from the tragedy, telling ourselves that if we just ignore it, it will go away, it will resolve itself.

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Richard Rohr says part of the journey towards maturity or wholeness is that we embrace what he calls the “tragic sense of life.” We embrace both rails — that life is always beautiful, and life is always tragic. Yes, there are evil people committing injustices in the world, but there are also heroes doing achingly good and beautiful things too.

Jason Silva, in his video “Existential Bummer” (one of many like it in his Shots of Awe YouTube channel), pushes us to the same idea in relationships. He says that when we love something/someone, we embrace Rohr’s “tragic sense of life,” in that we recognize the transience of all things — that nothing we see, nothing we experience will last. But instead of moving towards detachment as Buddhists teach, we “rage against the dying of the light” as in the Dylan Thomas poem above. Instead of detaching, we embrace both the beauty AND the transience at the same time. We love and we ache. Maturity recognizes it’s always both.

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Rohr writes that this embracing of the tragic sense of life is really at the heart of the Christian story — God is always taking the tragic and working in it and through it. God has not chosen in history to simply eradicate the evil, the tragic, the darkness, but to work surreptitiously through it. It’s a long quotation, but I love how he says it (the emphasis is in the original):

“If God has not learned to draw straight with crooked lines, God is not going to be drawing very many lines at all.. Judeo-Christian salvation history is an integrating, using and forgiving of this tragic sense of life. Judeo-Christianity includes the problem inside the solution and as part of the solution. The genius of the biblical revelation is that it refuses to deny the dark side of things, but forgives failure and integrates falling to achieve its only promised wholeness, which is much of the point of this whole book.

Jesus is never upset at sinners (check it out!); he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners! Jesus was fully at home with this tragic sense of life.” (Richard RohrFalling Upward)

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So, which rail do you lean on? Are you denying, numbing, insisting only on the beauty of all things, or do you tend towards wallowing in the melancholy and tragic? What do you need to bring balance? How might you embrace the “tragic sense of life” today?

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