Tragedy: Why do we need it?

Toward the very beginning of class, Professor Mackin had once asked the question: “What is the importance of tragedy? Why do we (or even do we) need it?” and for some reason, the question stuck with me throughout the whole semester and since then, I’ve thought and pondered about why it is that tragedy still remains and is still very much a part of our lives as well as in our literature. I found myself looking for and finding various instances that proved why “tragedy” was in fact, an important and possible necessary aspect in our lives (contrary to what we are discussing now in class with Plato’s Republic, where Socrates advocates the necessity of “censorship” in order to attempt to achieve the kallipolis- the ideal harmonious city).

In lieu of what is happening now in Japan, a thought struck me when I saw a few weeks ago on the CNN news, an interview with a caller who was amidst and currently bravely surviving the catastrophic consequential aftermath in Japan of the earthquake and tsunami. Having seen all the unfathomable destruction and loss of life and the captured moments on tape of despaired citizens (one scene was of the backside of a woman standing in front of a massive pile of debris that was the remains of what was once her home, who, speechless for words, slowly crumbled down to her knees in tears), it was expected to hear about unfortunate news and reports of what was happening in the affected areas. Surprisingly, however, the woman (who was an American teaching at a school in Japan) sounded optimistic in both her voice and manner that even the reporter pointed out her encouragingly cheerful manner/behavior. The woman even continued to mention how despite the tragedy that was happening all around them, the people surrounding her were all strong in mind, and were working to support one another through this time of crisis. After hearing and seeing this news, I realized what could be considered a possible answer to the above question- Tragedy is what provides a chance for the “protagonist” (whom has befallen to the “fate” caused by forces beyond his control) to overcome his nihilistic tendencies by accepting his “fate” and instead, trying to approach and view the situation in a probable, favorable and possibly optimistic light. Tragedy is the inevitable part of life that almost forces or allows all protagonists of humankind to grow and become stronger by overcoming the obstacles and forces “tragedy” produces. Although Japan is now currently suffering the aftermaths and ongoing crises of the tsunami, earthquake and potential nuclear threats, it is also because of this tragedy that the citizens of Japan are pulled to collectively work together to support one another (through methods like financial funding to aid rescue efforts and donations of equipments and volunteers to aid the affected) and just like with many other tragedies resulting from natural disasters or other inevitable forces, many other parts of the world are now reaching out to try and provide help to those Japanese citizens who are suffering miles away from their home country. It may suffice to say that through the inevitable hardships tragedy presents, something optimistic like “hope” results and thus further develops and strengthens (possibly to an even deeper extent that if the tragedy had not happened) the bonds between and within all members of humanity.

Popular culture also dictates a similar message in movies such as the famous “Lord of the Rings”- here in a quote from the “Two Towers”, Samwise Gamgee was trying to encourage Frodo on his difficult mission and trial as the beholder of the all-mighty “one ring”:

“Sam: ‘It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.’

Frodo: ‘What are we holding onto, Sam?’

Sam: ‘That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.’”

Just like how Frodo strives to fulfill his inevitable fate as the anointed beholder of the “one ring” whom was destined to destroy the source of all evil in order to save mankind and restore peace within the world, we all individually are fated to accomplish a role in life that is unique to us as an individual (although it may not be as severe nor as extreme a role that Frodo had played in the movie; there is also the fact that we presently may not be aware of what our destined fates might be). As the protagonist of the story, Frodo is fated to carry the burdening task of journeying to Mordor in order to rightfully destroy the evil source of power that many forces strived to attain for their own selfish desires for power- although he at first denies the responsibility, Frodo eventually comes to realize that he can not run from the fate that only he can accomplish, and thus resorts himself to accepting the task and the responsibilities that came with such a task. Frodo in many ways is similar to our beings when we go through our daily lives- we struggle with accepting our fates, and though eventually we may accept what our destined fates, we still at times experience doubt and insecurity- yet it is “hope” (as portrayed by an archetypical character like Sam wise Gamgee) that allows us to push forward and is what keeps us motivated to achieve our fate in life, no matter what the consequences may be.

Without tragedy to provide examples of life at its (occasional) lowest moments, it would be difficult for people to fully appreciate the meaning of life, and what it means to “be alive” in and to fully “experience” this world. As it is mentioned in the Bible, it is necessary to be aware of the opposites, in order fully appreciate the potential of both opposing factors and to also comprehend and achieve the balance which results from knowing each end of the scale: “…where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”[1] As a human being, we are only as good as the sum of our parts, so in order to try to achieve our full potential, it is necessary to have an awareness for that which is not only “good” or sensibly “right” and “non-painful”, but also “”bad”, “unfortunate” or even “unfavorable” so that we may better comprehend, develop and achieve a greater knowledge that may lead to a balanced understanding as to what is or to what goes on in a “life/lifetime”.

Tragedy is an essential component (in both our life and literature) that provides the opportunity for one to expand one’s perspectives on life, and also allows one to “test” oneself in order to see how much one is able to successfully achieve, or to be able to recognize the limit one is capable of achieving. In the process of realizing what consequential actions tragedy provides, one also is able to gain knowledge of the “opposites” and thus is able to further understand the depth of, and possibly further develop an appreciation for, what each opposing factor represents and provides to one’s life. Though the consequences of tragedy are not always pleasant (such as the ill-fated Oedipus who unconsciously fulfilled his own unfortunate fate and consequentially took out his own eyes as punishment), it also serves as a reminder to us on how it is essential that we still maintain hope, and that no matter what obstacles life may throw in our path, we must learn how to withstand, if not then at least how to deal with, the consequences so that the experience will in the end, be something that contributes to our development as our individual self as a human being amongst the happenings of this unpredictable earthly world.


[1] Prayer for Peace- St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

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One Response to Tragedy: Why do we need it?

  1. rmcmanmo says:

    this seems to be the same logic that later allowed Nietzsche to determine that if Tragedy allows us greater appreciation of its opposite (you say hope) then the best way to have achieve hope is to put ourselves through as much tragedy as we can handle, and thus encapsulate our lives in this in order to one day have the pinnacle of hope.

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