Sometimes, life deals a hand that just can’t be played out to anyone’s benefit. You look at the cards, and there isn’t even enough of a pigs’ ear to make a purse. Words are said that cannot be taken back. Bridges are crossed that cannot be recrossed. Some bridges are even burned as we cross them. There can be no path forward in a relationship that does not continue to hurt everyone. The pain, the tingle, the stiff joint, the dizziness in the head…every diagnosis that starts with the word “Chronic….” deals from a deck of cards we’ll be playing with the rest of our lives. Some diagnoses begin far back, apples on the family tree that fall on our heads. It’s genetic. There are inevitable times when life can’t be fixed. Somehow, we have to find a different path forward or resign ourselves to it in a fit of paralysis.
But first, we try. Maybe we try mightily, or maybe we just give it a light kick and see if it is as hopeless as we believe it to be. Trixie, our last Australian Shepherd rescue, had a bad habit of cruising counters–especially if butter were involved. She ate an entire brand new package of butter. The result came up on the carpet in my study. I can now tell you that no carpet cleaner or enzymatic cleaner on the market will rescue carpet from a pound of regurgitated butter. We tried mightily, but still could not live with it. What to do? Get rid of the dog? The carpet will still stink. Get rid of the carpet, acknowledging our failure to rescue it? Expensive. We came to a parting with the carpet rather than the dog, acknowledging our failure to keep the counters clear of such doggie toxins and resolved to try harder. It has become a part of our bedtime checklist to this day. “Lights off?” yes. “Doors locked?” yes. Food put away? Let me check. And we do check. We took 18 months to pay for that carpet, but we continued to enjoy Trixie’s company and resolved to learn a lesson.
I confess, I hang on too long and don’t get how long is enough. That’s the nature of my beast. Life doesn’t come with a nifty checklist that helps us understand “This far and no farther.” How long do we keep trying? How many miscarriages, how many months of temperature taking and fertility dances before we stop hoping and get on with life? As my mother’s power of attorney, I wondered how and when I would have to make those horrible decisions like when to move her out of her house, when to ask her to stop driving, and finally….when to say no to more invasive procedures that would do harm more than good. How long do we live with anxiety or depression or a click in the hip before it is clear we need help? First, we have to try. We have to learn what can be learned. We have to figure out what it is that is truly irreconcilable, irreparable before we ditch the whole enterprise. I think this is “the time of trial,” you know, the one we pray about in the Lord’s prayer. It’s not just that the time is troubling, it’s that it’s so easy to get lost at sea during such times and collapse in paralysis. The time of trial is excruciating. We make false starts. We fail even though we have tried hard. We cling to hope, only to find it beyond our grasp again.
That brings us to the cross road. All paths finally lead here, tangled and knotted. Something will have to die before we can continue on. A dream. A hope. An expectation. Whatever it is we once called “Normal.” A career. A part of ourselves, like a marriage or a limb. We are forced to say “No” before we can say “Yes,” if there is such a thing possible.
There will be grief, because grief is the appropriate response to loss. Blame is a deflection of grief. Anger is not necessarily bad. Anger can be a kind of reagent to grief. It helps us to make the distinctions, draw the lines between what is ours and us and not ours or us.
We are on the verge of losing a category in our world. In all the diatonic dualism, either/or/or else, rhetoric of extremes, we lose the category of tragedy.
This is the category, I believe, that is most helpful to us at one of these crossroads (crucibles) of irreconcilable differences. Tragedy allows us to say that the situation is bigger than any one of the actors in the play. There are tragic faults, happenstances, naive choices, misplaced trusts, and helpless victimization. Everyone is culpable, but no one is altogether culpable. That’s where the dramatic tension comes from on this stage. Tragedies are seldom prosecutable. Something or someone always dies in the third act. There is grief. There is lament. Then comes the soliloquy that explains what can be explained and posits a future of lessons learned, for that is the only useful thing to come out of tragedy.
One never designs to fall into the script of a tragedy. Tragedies just happen. God doesn’t write tragic scripts for us–or anyone else– in order to teach us a lesson. Tragedy is what happens as a consequence of making choices with only the limited view and resources we have within the play. The chorus /narrator/God(s) are the only ones who hover over the stage, omniscient in their commentary. Tragedy wouldn’t exist if we were not limited, finite creatures. But we are not God. (There’s that first commandment thing again.) We can be damaged in the process of coming to life, if we reach it at all. After one of our miscarriages, dear Dr. Sawaya sat down with me and said, “The wonder is that life exists at all.”
What would change in our conversations if we could assign the category of “tragedy” to events rather than blame?Tragedy isn’t about excusability or no excusability. Tragedy admits the possibility that God is at the table with us, weeping. Tragedy allows us to acknowledge that a thing once living and viable has become dust and must be returned to the dust.
Like a grain of wheat.
So that it can grow, hidden and unseen in the stuff of death and compost,
covered with snow, sheltered from the hungry birds.
And grow, a green blade.
And yield an unexpected harvest.
Where the hungry birds can snatch some up.
Where some will wither and thirst in the heat of the day.
Where some will be choked by the nettles and thistles, kudzu and false honeysuckle.
Where life must be lost if it is to be found.
Where there is no antidote or cure.
Except for rising from the dead.
Blessings on your road through Lent.