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Writing Our Tragedies

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working through two Greek tragedies with my students. The first is Oedipus Rex, a devastating story about a man who unknowingly murders his own father before accidentally marrying his mother. The second tragedy is Antigone, which describes the pathetic death of a daughter conceived in the incestuous marriage of Oedipus.

The historical context of these tragedies is interesting to me. In modern times most of us attempt to avoid “spoilers.” We don’t want the outcome of a plot to be known until the story unfolds. However, when these plays were first observed, the audience already knew how the lives of Oedipus and his daughter would end.

Imagine experiencing this dynamic as a script writer. From the first words of the prologue, the average audience member knows more about the fate of poor old Oedipus than his character does. The punch line is told before the joke. How would a playwright keep an audience engaged if the end of his plot is already exposed?

Instead of running from this challenge, Sophocles maximized it. He incorporated the empathy of his audience as a key function of the narrative, almost like a painted scenic backdrop against which the action takes place. In fact, Oedipus is driven by a dramatic irony that depends upon the audience’s sense of foreboding. Catharsis is achieved because Sophocles evokes fear and pity for a doomed hero.

Unpacking this has been relevant to me, because recently I have been thinking about how I carry my own past and how I tell its stories. I’ll be forty-two this year, old enough to have seen certain micro-plots of life worked to micro-conclusions. Yet, passing days tend to move so quickly, and in the rush I have assigned meanings to certain micro-plots haphazardly.

When I realized this, I began to work intentionally back through the story of my life, and particularly through my twenty-year marriage, to reexamine acts and scenes that were lived in the raw and rapidly named as comedies or tragedies. The first scene I unpacked was a miscarriage. I was young and horrified when it happened, and the sorrow of losing a child was too much to process. I couldn’t find thoughts or words to capture it all, so I simply let images collect into a deep, vague ache that throbbed for two decades.

Going back into this memory last week, I knew how the story ended. Like the audience watching Oedipus, I knew what profound sadness was waiting for me. Yet in retrospect, that certainty allowed me to examine the particulars of the narrative and find valuable messages hidden in a tragic story.

One of my favorite lines from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was spoken by Samwise Gamgee. He looks at Gandalf the wizard and asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” I love that sentence, because it is the silent ache of so many hearts. We long to know that spring will come after a brutal cold.

If you are a spiritual person, perhaps your eschatology provides a vision of paradise that will kiss away every tear lost. Skeptics argue that promises of eternal comfort were borne of desperation and fairy dust, but I see that differently. I think it is telling that there is a widespread, inherent ache in the human heart for happily ever after. An infant who has never nursed will still scream out of need for milk. His hunger indicates that something exists to quell the want. Is it not then possible that the human soul hungers for bliss because a heaven exists?

That is my ultimate hope. I cling to it. Yet it is also good for me to see that even in this closer, sadder world, there are tragedies that can be re-explored after time and seen with more clarity. They are going to bite and sear to the last line, and yet, by exploration tiny strands of truth (and even beauty) will emerge, hidden among the train wrecks.

This is not the ultimate redemption, of course. It is not what I long for most. Still, to see how grace sometimes rises in horror is an unexpected benefit of growing older. Our sad stories are important, too. And knowing how terribly they end can invite us to rewind through them, looking not for the great reveal, but for bits of sea glass hidden on broken shores.

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