The great tragedies of world literature have certain things in common. They all portray a flawed human being trapped by the injustices of fate as well as by his own choices. Orestes must, according to the moral code he lives by, avenge the murder of his father – but his mother was the murderer, and killing his mother will bring the Furies down on him. Antigone must bury her brother, but the act leads to her exile and death. Oedipus vows to search for and punish the malefactor who has brought disharmony on his kingdom – then finds that he himself is the malefactor. Hamlet knows that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, knows it’s his job to fix it, and knows there is no remedy that does not involve his own destruction.
This sense of being caught in a maze of dead ends, one built by fate, society, and our own choices, is at the heart of tragedy. The tragic hero stands in the center of the maze and realizes that the only escape is through sacrifice and loss.
There are times I wonder if this is true for our species, too.
I had these thoughts while I was standing in line at the grocery store recently. I brought my own bags, as I always do in a feeble effort to limit global waste; now, however, the checkout clerks won’t pack reusable bags because of the risk of viral infection. If I don’t use the store’s plastic bags, I have to pack the groceries myself. I can do that, although I feel bad to keep other people waiting while I do it. But what occurred to me as I was bagging my groceries was how in fixing one problem (contagion) we're aggravating another (non-biodegradable waste).
A few months ago, people were just coming to terms with the dangers brought about by our misuse of the planet and its resources. Global warming statistics were growing too convincing to ignore, and Greta Thunberg was making a lot of sense. People around the world began to think about all the elements of modern culture that will, if not stopped, lead to a toxic world in the near future: excess consumption of resources, overuse of fossil fuels, solid, liquid, and gaseous wastes that won’t go away, the destruction of land and sea resulting in extinction of species – then suddenly that threat vanished in the popular imagination and was replaced by the viral pandemic. And how have we responded to the pandemic? By increasing our production and use of the things we were just saying we have to limit: plastic grocery bags, plexiglass screens, disposable personal protection items, and countless medical devices.
I’m not talking only about the pandemic here, but it has clarified our tragic dilemma: we know we have to stop destroying our planet, but we want to live long and comfortable lives.
Tragedy always occurs in the intersection of the corporate and the personal. We can find no happy solution to the conflict between the needs of the many and the desires of the individual. I don’t see any way for balance and health to be restored to the world we’ve damaged except by sacrifice: by going without the individualistic conveniences of modern society; by accepting the discomfort of a simpler and more uncertain life; even by dying, which all will do one day but some will do sooner than they like – from disease, heat waves, drought, famine, and the wars brought on by desperation.
Classic tragedy combines clear-sighted diagnosis of the human condition, religious ritual, and cultural and personal healing. The hero is the scapegoat, taking on the sins of the people and being an offering in their stead. For the audience, tragedies aren’t fun, but they have a purpose. The ancient Greeks attended performances of tragedies in order to experience catharsis, or cleansing. The anxieties and sadness of life were purged through vicarious participation in a fictional or legendary character’s anxieties and sadness. They went, they cried, they came home at peace.
We know what it’s like to be the audience. Now it’s time to wonder what it’s like to be the tragic hero, who loves his land, family, and belief system enough to offer himself for their healing. There isn't much we can do in a practical sense, but we still have a choice: we can employ increasing narrow tunnel vision to pretend that everything is all right, or we can decide to face our tragic dilemma with acceptance, like Hamlet:
"We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be."
This is not a self-help, DIY essay. I don’t have any exhortation to offer or list of things to do. It may be that my comparing us all to tragic heroes debating sacrificial suffering is horrifying to you. But I believe there is value in acknowledging the reality of the tragedy that awaits the human race; in stopping our breathless scurrying through the maze and accepting that there is no way out that guarantees everyone a happy ending.
But even if there is no happy ending, there may still be catharsis and ultimately healing and peace. The readiness is all.
“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”