On Tragedy

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In the words of the eminently fictional Don Draper from Mad Men, “People do things.” We each live our own stories adjacent to one another, some of us more headful than others in our actions and choices. Sometimes, no matter the rationale or forethought, events and situations befall and unfold around us. If we truly are the hero of our own journey, there is a certain amount of agency we ascribe to ourselves–and yet, when tragedy does strike us, we can sometimes be left in bafflement over how we got here. Were we not careful? Did we not consider the risks? How could this have happened to us, aren’t we good people? Why would karma do us dirty like this?

Instead of spiraling into a shrieking cacophony of shame and blame because it happened to you, most people with their wits (and counseling degrees) will rightly point out that though tragic, life gives us lessons and there is something to be learned from our mistakes. If we are to consider these moments of drama a part of the woven story that makes us who we are–the art of our life–then perhaps we should consider ourselves a character in a Greek tragedy.

[A Greek Tragedy] is a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.

Collins Dictionary

Scholars disagree precisely on the exact origins of Greek Tragedy (it doesn’t help that we’ve lost a lot of work), but the earliest study of the arts of poetry, tragedy, and comedy come from Aristotle’s writings on Poetics detailing the traditions from Athens which could be found around the 5th century B.C. Aristotle theorizes that the purpose of poetry comes from our innate urge as humans to learn life lessons through imitation and that through this imitation in learning we find great pleasure. Thus, it seems only reasonable that the art of poetry would be born to impart this desire. The Epic (Heroic) Poem is a literary device that far pre-dates Greece, but it’s influence on the development of Greek Tragedy is not lost on Aristotle. But he insists on the distinction where tragedy becomes not just an imitation in narrative like a poem, but in action that is “serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” and displayed through the agents of “pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”.

For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality…

-Aristotle, Poetics VI

He goes on to suggest that a successful tragedy is told in which a protagonist who is good suffers an event not out of misfortune, but from error or frailty in character which now brings the prospects of that main protagonist to unfavorable. And to expand on just what he means by a tragic hero being inherently good in order to feel the full weight of this pity–it is one who is morally expressed in virtue(s), consistent, has informed propriety (values with meaning rather than for the sake of it), and one who is realistic (no Superman or impossibly perfect persons). Just imagining someone of these qualities finding themselves dealing with the pain of tragedy because of an error in judgment should already be pulling at your heart strings. Who is the best person you know? Now imagine that person, trying their hardest to do good, ends up losing everything they care about. That’s pretty sad, isn’t it?

The tragic flaw in this case is being married to Theseus…

So again, what’s the point of tragedy? Especially in story telling? Well, Aristotle pointed out that part of the focus is learning through life imitating art–but there is also another component to this kind of drama known as Catharsis which ties the purpose all together. Catharsis in Greek Tragedy involves an ’emotional cleansing’ which occurs due to the empathy invoked by the pity and fear experienced upon witnessing the tragic unfolding of a good person experiencing catastrophe of their own doing. It’s a psychological phenomenon that goes beyond art–emotional release has its foundation in Freudian theory as well, an aid to relieving stress and unconscious tension. Not to mention a ‘good cry‘ releases endorphins meant to make you feel better and more calm afterwards, so there are benefits surely to experiencing tragedy as an audience member.

But since we’re entertaining the thought experiment, what if it feels like you’re hypothetically the tragic figure in your own tale and you’re struggling to reason out what happened to you and why? Oedipus, Medea, Antigone, and more famous characters all spelled about their own undoing in different ways but they weren’t ‘bad’ people though they made horrific mistakes (Well, Medea makes a hard case against her on this one…) These figures were known to harbor admirable traits–strengths and virtues, yet in this case, presenting as tragic flaws.

So what are your tragic flaws?

Aristotle’s 12 Virtues (in ethics)

Courage – Bravery

Temperance – Moderation

Liberality – Spending

Magnificence – Charisma

Magnanimity – Generosity

Ambition – Pride

Patience – Calm

Friendliness

Truthfulness – Honesty

Wit – Humor

Modesty – Ego

Justice – Sense of Right/Wrong

The Nichomachaen Ethics, Aristotle

Now in looking over the above, these all sound like good things right? Well, that’s because they are. BUT do they always lead to ‘good’ things? Not necessarily and therein lies the tragedy–what if someone (or you!) exemplifies one or more of these qualities but in enacting the principle it leads you to pain and suffering? Were you wrong? Maybe. But are you bad? Hell no.

Listen, life is a god damn mess and hard to figure out, that’s why we have stories and art to tell us a little bit about how things can go horribly wrong–even to good people who are simply trying their best. But it might be helpful to try and figure out where the error in judgment came from on your end and decide how to continue walking ahead as the good person you are, not let the tragedy break you, but let it define you in how you move forward in resiliency and compassion. Holding true to your good nature and accepting your loss with grace and accountability.

Did too much patience lead to something walking away from you indefinitely due to inaction? Were you too honest and truthful about something that would have been better left unsaid, something that spelled your own doom once spoken out-loud? Did you give too earnestly, too much of yourself to someone who maybe took too much from you in the end? And maybe you did all of these things anyway because you were too trusting and brave with your vulnerability, only to get hurt badly in the end?

It certainly might seem like your fault when looking at it on the surface–an err in judgment sort of warrants a responsible actor after all–but instead consider it as a learning experience, your life being art. And try to think of how to tell your story in a way that can perhaps also help guide others to not commit the same folly. Your terrible loss and tragedy might just be the thing that saves someone else. Or even you, once you learn the lesson from this and keep on living.

If there’s one thing that you need not be Greek in your tragedy aside from pain and suffering though, is in how you choose to live the ending–you don’t really need to cook your own kids, hang yourself, or marry your own mother to learn anything from your mistakes. Leave that kind of high end drama to the playwrights.

But keep it dramatic

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