Surviving tragedy

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated July 10, 2011 1

A woman loses her husband in a tragic accident. A little boy dies leaving his mother totally devastated. A family loses everything when fire hits their household. Something that you’ve wished and worked so hard for unexpectedly ends up in shambles. I am talking about dashed hopes and dreams, promises ending in tragic failure, destruction of all aspirations.

These things happen all the time. Who is the man or woman who has lived long enough and who has not experienced great disappointment in life?

There is the personal tragedy and the bigger one that affects entire communities and societies. Mankind has been through the world wars, famine, ethnic cleansing, 9/11, the Tokyo tsunami and the nuclear meltdown among many others that have brought mayhem and taken a great number of lives.

Sometimes, the events are so unimaginable that it makes one question many of the basic things that one believes hold up the sky: life, God, the purpose of living, love, hope, trust, faith. One is left dumbfounded and shell-shocked with hardly anything to hold on to.

How is it that life is okay one moment and eternally changed into something hideous and ugly in the next? How does one cope? How does one convince himself or herself that this is “okay” or tolerable, or that one can even recover from something so tragic? How does one begin to pick up the pieces?When tragedy strikes, one could fall into a spiral of hopelessness and despair that is so difficult to get out of. Some may even unknowingly “choose” to “live” down the spiral for a long period, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Where once they were happy and optimistic, dreaming of a bright future, they become bitter, cynical, depressed and depressing.But then there are those who do recover despite the odds. “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. He may as well have written the quote backwards as, “Show me a tragedy, and I will find you a hero.” Whatever the tides of fortune, there are those who will manage to surf the wave and find solace in tamer shores.

There is a tendency to break down, to give in, or to surrender; and that is understandable. But one must make a distinction between surrendering permanently out of fear and disillusionment, and surrendering bravely to the moment, to face the music, only to bide time, to recover one’s strengths and bearings amid the new reality with the clear intention of rising again. There is a quote from an anonymous source that makes this distinction clear: “I guess when your heart gets broken you sort of start to see cracks in everything. I’m convinced that tragedy wants to harden us and our mission is never to let it.”

In a way, surrendering to tragedy in hopelessness is like breaking your arm and not dealing with it by having it properly fixed. Eventually, much of the pain will go away but the arm will not heal normally. While there may be a semblance of recovery in the sense that the pain may recede, in truth, the fracture will become the new norm. The arm will be twisted, less pliant, less strong and less useful. It will need direct intervention to put the bones back in place, if it is still possible.

Heroes are not alien to fear. Like everyone else, they feel the fear. The difference is, they do what needs to be done anyway. Facing fear starts like the tiny roar of a mouse against something much bigger. But what happens is, the defiance gains traction and strength as one moves deeper into the heart of fear and its darkness. The clash between the defiant challenger and fear itself becomes an even match until the fear is eventually overpowered. The big discovery here is that the fear when confronted is actually nowhere near the projection we give to it. It is a paper tiger.

I believe that within every person lies a bigger, more powerful entity that one can muster when challenges appear. We are larger beings than we can ever imagine. Have we not seen unimaginable strength and even genius surface when it is most needed? During fires or floods, for example, people find that they can easily lift heavy objects by themselves without much effort or swim great distances against strong current. Haven’t we seen ordinary people come up often with brilliant solutions which were needed during crunch time? When one reviews history, in times of great crisis and turmoil, a hero often appears to answer the call of the times.

Nature itself seems to show what I call an “optimism bias.” This term enters my mind every time I see, say, a burned forest sprouting new foliage, or Manila regaining much of its normalcy just a few days after a big storm. I also see it in people who recover from the death of a spouse or other loved ones and start dating again. Hope does spring eternal.

Oscar Wilde said, “Behind every beauty that is exquisite was something tragic.” This implies a triumph over some ugliness, hopelessness and tragedy, and victory is the beauty he talks about. The art of living is all about turning the despicable and horrible into something beautiful. This is something artists are good at. Van Gogh, Picasso and many other artists led lives that many would call wretched and neurotic. And yet, from so much dysfunction came inspiring light and even transcendence.

My favorite characters in history, fiction and real life are the rebels who question, who like to beat the odds, and who do not readily accept things as they are. These are people who, in their defiance, actually move the wheels of life into a progression they control. They are almost always optimistic and see opportunities where others see only bleakness. In the extreme dread of darkness when everyone is in despair, they reflect the faint flash of a star’s twinkle.

One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Camus who wrote, “In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” That never-say-die spirit is what such people possess.We will all suffer some tragedy in our lives if we haven’t yet. And even when we already have, there is no immunity from further suffering. Surviving it hinges on the question that we ask ourselves in the face of disappointment and loss. Instead of asking “Why me?” maybe we should ask the more empowering question: “What’s next?”

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Ben Ramos
Ben Ramos
9 years ago

Where have been? I’m glad you’re back.

Craig Peihopa
9 years ago

Absolutely agree. Great post.