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Tragedy: Can We Learn from Nature?

By Margy Stewart
Analysis | July 21, 2012

MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - We Americans are a can-do people, surrounded by technological wonders that allow us to detach ourselves from nature. Here I am writing this in air-conditioned comfort while outside the thermometer tops 100. I have already lived longer than most people did before the Industrial Revolution, and I am pain-free because a surgically implanted titanium brace keeps my lumbar discs 4 and 5 in line. My longevity - and my mobility - are owing to technological success.

Still, our problem-solving culture can have a down side, and that is a certain coldness to people experiencing tragedy. We are "worshipers in the church of the machine," writes historian Loren Baritz about American culture. But machines have no feelings -- they know nothing of guilt, heartbreak, loss. When people face terrible suffering there is no deep well of American cultural wisdom for them to draw upon. People do find houses of worship that suit their needs, but even these islands of spirituality are influenced by the larger society. Often neither the sufferers nor those around them know what to say or do.

I was forced to think about this cultural helplessness recently when in a short period of time two terrible things happened to acquaintances. One was the suicide of a teenaged child; the other, the accidental drowning of a guest at a pool party.

In both cases, in addition to grievous loss, the parents and the hosts felt responsible. They blamed themselves: Why didn't they see the danger-in-the-making? Why didn't they solve the problem in advance?

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton's work on "survivor's guilt" shows that people everywhere have such feelings in response to death. He learned that civilians at Hiroshima felt guilty about the nuclear bomb, and that witnesses to car accidents feel tainted by the wrecks. To the American mind, it isn't logical for people to feel that way, and therefore, they should not feel that way. They should tough it out, get over it, move on!

But deep down, such feelings have a logic of their own. If it's true that a butterfly's wing can affect the course of history, then everything we do and don't do affects everything else -- so of course we are implicated, we are responsible, we are inextricably involved in everything that happens, including the bad things -- the loss and pain and hurt. The guilt we feel stems from our existential connections to each other -- connections we might not even be aware of until they are ruptured and we feel the pain within ourselves. It hurts to have others torn away from us, and the closer we are to the tearing, the more it hurts.

But our forward-looking society is not comfortable with pain derived from a shared identity. We imagine our society as a group of autonomous individuals -- all of whom are the Masters of their Fates, the Captains of their Souls. Therefore, we don't know what to say to people like my acquaintances who are agonizing inwardly. We can't wait for them to get back to "normal" life.

But what my acquaintances are going through is normal. All of us have regrets, guilt, hurts -- things that we will carry with us as long as we live. These feelings put us at odds with American society, however, adding the insult of isolation to the injury of pain. Our culture is all about the future, and the past is alive within us. Our culture is all about problem-solving, and we have problems that can't be solved. Our culture loves bigger and better, yet tragedy forces us to experience the worst. And there we are -- down in the very slime of nature which our society strives smugly to transcend.

But maybe that's just where we need to be to find what's missing in our society. Nature is full of death and pain, but also beauty and love. The two strains are intertwined; you don't get the one without the other. Our society, in contrast, thinks it can control nature, to have the good without the bad.

But tragedy is a 'both-and' kind of deal. Tragedy links us to the worst, but also to the best. To experience tragedy is to join Jesus on the cross, the Buddha in life-as-suffering. It is to be a full-fledged citizen of nature and kin to every human being who ever walked the earth.

So maybe we can learn something from nature, instead of always trying to rise above it. Maybe we can learn to be simultaneously open to tragedy and joy, without denying either one. Certainly by listening deeply to each other we can learn about the multi-sidedness of Life. If we converse truly about suffering, we will add to our collective wisdom -- and with military suicides at epidemic proportions, we need all the wisdom we can get.

At the very least, we can replace the distortion of socially-imposed isolation with the deep knowledge that no one who faces tragedy is alone.


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