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Saturday, 27 October 2007

I am not resigned: A meditation on tragedy.

The last Poetry Sunday at Daylight Atheism was Edna St. Vincent Millay's Dirge Without Music. The poem itself is a beautiful, sensitive, defiant meditation on death. Yet it is not of death that I wish to speak, or not death alone. Sublime though the poem is in its entirety, in the process of responding to Ebonmuse's particular emphasis on its quiet refusal to succumb to perfect acceptance of the inevitable I have been caught, caught entirely, by the final line alone.

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. It's a small, simple idea that might have meant very little to another person, or to myself at another time. Knowing this, I cannot be sure that I am able to explain what it meant to me. Nor can I be sure that it will mean anything to you, if I do succeed in such an explanation. I offer my attempt at explanation nevertheless.

Ebonmuse writes, almost coincidentally, in that same thread that "Paradoxically, there can be true beauty in tragedy, for all that I would end it in a second if I had the power." Let this be my starting point, for, friends, if I had in front of me the magic wand that would end tragedy forever, I could never pick it up. No, never! The sweetest moments of my life have been those when tragedy fell away. How many lines of flaccid free verse have I wasted on the taste of tears? On the way despair becomes a lens through which the simple details of the world seem unimaginably good in their detachment from your pain? The simple fact is that I am not sure my life would be worth living if it had no tragedy in it.

The beauty that is in despair was an observation on which I built my view of the world. It was how I dealt with the reality of despair. Let me put this in a broader context. Human beings in general have a need to find ways to deal with the reality of pain and suffering. I do not speak here of the 'Problem of Evil' which plagues so many versions of conventional theism but rather the more simple part of us that cannot help but cry out at the unfairness and pain in the world: our own pain; the pain of those we love; all pain. Compassion can only exacerbate such a feeling. How do we deal with the incredible weight of suffering in the world? How do we deal with times when we ourselves are not sure that our own suffering will ever cease?

Religions have several different types of answers that they can give to these questions*. For example, we have the idea that we suffer because we deserve it. The notion of karma in Hinduism is the most extreme and obvious version of this. Those who suffer deserve to suffer; if you would avoid suffering, behave yourself. Believing in the ultimate fairness of the universe in this way may perhaps allow people to be psychologically reconciled to the suffering that inevitably occurs. It explains what people must do to avoid it, and gives people an excuse for not worrying too much about the pain of others. As freethinkers, of course, we may well be concerned about the consequences of people choosing not to worry about the pain of others! More importantly, however, we simply have no reason to suppose that there is any such karmic justice in place. The notion cannot be of use to us, even if we wanted it to be.

Another very common religious answer is to pull in the notion of a heavenly afterlife. Never mind that you are suffering now. Some day, you will live happily ever after, and so will those you love -- at least, they will as long as they belong to the same religion you do. This answer seems to rely on a willingness to be cold towards outsiders, but that is hardly a quality that human beings generally lack. Believing in heaven, people can struggle through, even if they believe their lives will never get better, by hoping for paradise at the end. Among atheists, the question sometimes arises whether (and when) we have the right to try to take this hope from people. I shall not try to answer that question completely, but perhaps I can shed some light on the extent to which there are atheist alternatives.

I confess I once naively placed a lot of confidence in the beauty that tragedy can produce. It's almost... karmic. Certainly it is at least a shift towards balance. After the storm, after the rain, the air is still and the grass is clean, and the shaft of sunlight coming down from the clouds can be a blessing beyond belief, even beyond belief in any God. I still do think that happiness arises in part by contrasts. I do not think I have ever thought that contrast was the only contributor to happiness, but nevertheless, my experience led me to play up this aspect of things. I had known the pain that comes when your world falls apart because you built it on false premises -- a healing pain from which you emerge somewhat subdued, but wiser and stronger. I had known small failures and deep loneliness, and found the small sweetnesses in each (I still have a radiant smile left over from when getting a smile back from a stranger really meant something). And out of this I could reflect that surely the world cannot be so bad when it gives you the soft rush of small joys in compensation for hardship.

Ah, but even Pollyanna had her moment when the 'glad game' just wouldn't work any more. And in real life the world is not required to miraculously restore to you the dearly beloved things it so coldly destroys. It is these moments when the narrative fails that are the hardest. How many deus ex machinas have I screamed at in the last few years? How dare George Eliot end The Mill on the Floss with a dubiously engineered death? (I expected better, having read Middlemarch). She's not allowed to die, she has to live. Live and suffer, Maggie. Live and suffer and show me how.

The worst tragedies are off the map. Jane Austen never wrote about what it was like when the man she loved died before they could marry. Think of it! This, at a time when marriage was the dearest ambition of every woman of Austen's age and class, to have the promise of that dreamed-of home, adulthood, security, love replaced with what might be (and, indeed, turned out to be) a lifetime of spinsterhood.

Knowing you are not alone can almost seem to make this sort of thing worse. Pick yourself up. Hearts are broken every day, Lynet, even worse than your so-narratively-wrong case. Oh, don't remind me of the sheer weight of broken hearts!

Of course, we know how Jane Austen dealt with her situation. Mansfield Park has a somewhat insipid streak precisely because our poor Jane, having given up hope in this world, was resolutely focused on the next. And since her novels improved after that low point, we may assume that she did, too, somehow. That option for making it through the rough patch is not open to me. What is?

Ah, well, I have options Jane Austen did not have. My life need not revolve around a relationship (hey, hers didn't either and she still managed a lot!). I can have a career. While away the hours until I die. I know I ought not to go gentle, but the imperative to take a hold of life seems hard, sometimes. If I keep working, will life stop feeling so flat?

And so I read Dirge Without Music, and, being asked to fully comprehend "I am not resigned", realised that I had pushed away that part of it the first time I read through. It hurts, not being resigned. How many times have I told myself that I'll just have to lump it?

Oh, help me, for I am not resigned. I am not resigned, and if I were resigned, not all the calm precautions and shaky rebuilding would ever be enough to restore the shine to my broken world.

Take me back, world of narratives and dreams. I know that beautiful things can die worthlessly. I know that many dreams disappear from our lives abruptly without so much as a 'goodbye'. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

When I finished crying and went outside, the sunshine seemed less incongruous. The grass was clean, the air was still, and my remembered loss still wasn't worth it, but I -- I wandered down the street with my radiant smile just a little bit easier than it was.

*I do not mean to imply that the non-religious ways of dealing with pain that I give later are not just as deeply felt by those with religion, too, of course -- L.L. Barkat's recent post would be proof against that assumption.

3 comments:

L.L. Barkat said...

The problem of suffering (which maybe is and maybe isn't a problem?) ... I cannot claim to have it worked out in my mind. I just know that I find it deeply tragic if beautiful things die worthlessly, with no meaning arising from their dying and no remembrance. I could not be resigned to that.

Of course, beautiful things die every day. Why just yesterday I swept a fallen bluejay under the hemlocks, where his beauty will cycle back into the earth to create more beauty of a diffferent sort. And that alone might be enough. But I must say it is also interesting to me that Jesus said not a sparrow falls that God doesn't know about. And that knowing seems to be a form of remembrance. Another layer beyond the cycle of life that, yes, gives me... can I call it comfort? Or just awe?

As always, I loved your reflection. Beautiful writing, I can be quite resigned to!

Ebonmuse said...

A beautiful post, Lynet! I think you've captured what Millay was driving at much more eloquently than I did. Yes, if only the tragedies we suffered were all the storybook kind - the ones where we learn from adversity and come out stronger for having had the experience, and there's a neat moral to be drawn from it all at the end. Life does have some of those. Sadly, it has many terrible, shattering, meaningless tragedies, too.

But I'm glad to see you're not resigned, and if you weep for that lack of resignation, then every tear should be counted a treasure. Even beyond how we react to any one tragedy, the refusal to give in, more than anything else, is what defines us as human.

GarnetDavid said...

I found you through the Humanist Symposium.

Your writing and its message leaves a sweet taste. You wind your way through issues too often simplified by religion or philosophy.

To be open to joy after suffering is a gift best appreciated when the suffering is felt in its full strength.

best wishes,
David