And yet somehow in song, in lyric, we find a pattern or a symbol to cling to and, in doing so, make a path through the pain of tragedy while the explanation of it necessarily eludes us.
Much has been written about the recent tragedy in Santa Barbara. On the heels of such articles, though not even two weeks after the shooting, this blog post will seem outdated, behind the pace of what’s trending on social media. But I want to take the time, still, to talk about our response to tragedy—we the people who write and read things, who post our thoughts on the Internet, who feel compelled to make sense out of the senseless in story and song.
Mostly I want to discuss what might be the appropriate
response to tragedy in this context—if there can be such a thing. And I sense that, rather than following the instinct to immediately “issuize” tragedy (though these conversations about gun control, mental illness, and misogyny are important and necessary), we might resist the urge to contain and constrain such tragedies into symbols of something larger, to instead dwell in the pain and uncertainty they give rise to.
Like the mourning rituals of many ancient and some contemporary cultures, with which many in America have lost touch, we should establish a set time and space for dwelling before launching into an attempt to organize our fear, to make a tragedy into something concrete we can cling to and fight for—whatever issue that might be.
This is a lot to ask. We depend on symbols and stories to arrange the chaos of our lives. As a poet, I know this. Poet Gregory Orr puts it this way in his article, “Poetry and Survival
”: the self “assert[s] its mastery over disorder” by arranging it in symbolic form via the poem. The “primordial ordering principles of story, symbol, and incantation…help us survive.” Without organizing this chaos in some way, we will not survive.
Our media culture has overly perfected this organization as it often feels more like compartmentalization. We try to tout a crime or disaster as representative of something larger than itself so that we don't have to stare directly at the actual tragedy—our gaze is already beyond it.
However, if we want to arrive at genuine symbols, ones that might endure, might keep our focus on the tragedy and what’s beneath it, not beyond it, then we must first sit with the disorder, the chaos, the senselessness. To bypass this dwelling place in order to arrive at the symbol not only cheapens and shallows the symbol, but also the self. As a community, I wonder if we aren’t also cheating ourselves of this necessary process,
coming up with hollow symbols and clichés that will not endure let alone satisfy our need for an understanding that surpasses language. Before leaping to publicize how a tragedy serves as a symbol of __________(fill in the blank), before hashtagging our opinions on the loss of real, actual
lives, how many of us sat, fully, with the weight of tragedy? How many of us called our friends and family and told them we loved them?
Perhaps this is merely the new pace of our world. I don’t want to sound like a Luddite—clearly I am not. After all, the Internet serves as an important space for conversations like this one, a convincingly material place for us to “gather” and say, “yes, I feel that too.” And so I’m not saying we can’t express our shock, outrage, and disbelief online in the wake of tragedy. But I am proposing that those of us with some distance from a tragedy
(as those directly
affected by a tragedy will not be able to think about the form their grief takes) might, as an online “community,” as the outside commentators, establish a grieving period, a dwelling period, before we rush to make symbols out of tragedies, soap boxes out of loss.
This period of dwelling might be the time we feel most connected to one another, as the ensuing posts and articles that politicize such tragedies inevitably tear us apart, igniting hatred and loathing for those who dismiss or disagree with our opinions. There is a reason the candlelight vigil is such a powerful force, in symbol and in action. Vigil
—to be watchful, alert—creates a space that both precludes and transcends speech.
And since tragedies happen every day, all around us, this practice of dwelling might be extended into a practice of living. Each day we might consider silence a necessary part of communication, just as the pause between the notes, the quiet before and after the song is what makes it sensible. Then, when we are ready to speak, we might fashion true symbols, ones that contain “multiple and complex meanings” so that we might guard against flattening or simplifying the unsimplifyable just to make ourselves feel more at ease. Because if something can be easily digested and categorized, it will end up stored and forgotten in some corner of the mind (or the Internet). What we want are symbols that pierce the very fabric of our lives, so that, as W.S. Merwin says, “everything [we] do is stitched with [their] color.”
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The Greek origin of "tragedy" is ode or song. Perhaps this is why we choose this word to describe what we can barely utter, what no arrangement of words can make sense of.