Comedy and Tragedy in the Not-Right World
In Mark Forster’s 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction, Harold Crick stumbles upon the unsettling discovery that he’s a character in a story being written by someone else. Driven by the fear that his narrator is planning to kill him off, Harold seeks the advice of a professor of literature who tells him that his fate hinges on whether the story he appears in is a comedy or a tragedy. So Harold begins to tally the evidence in a small notebook he carries around with him while he fulfills his duties as an IRS auditor. His results aren’t promising. “I think I’m in a tragedy,” he tells the professor despondently after the first day.
There are days when I feel I’d pay good money to know what kind of story I’m in. I think most of us embark on the adventure of life more or less confident that we’re in a happy tale. The warrior may get banged up, the wicked king may seize the throne, the noble sister may be banished, and the treasure map may be lost, but by the end, we’re pretty sure the hot-mouthed dragon will be subdued, the right people will be ruling, and everything precious and beautiful will be restored. Optimism comes easy to children who are surrounded by caring people and protected from sad stories. But this whole planet is groaning under the weight of its sad stories, and any assessment of the world that doesn’t take them into account isn’t a true one.
Earlier this year, Alex and I spent several hours at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, a compelling memorial dedicated to the history and contemporary legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. As with so many of the museums we’ve visited together during our time in the UK, it was well-organized and chock-full of stories. But unlike other museums, almost all of its stories were sad, and not in a blue and gloomy, pensive sort of way, but in the sort of way that makes you want to chew your knuckles and scream, “Good God, are you anywhere? Say something!!”
This sort of sadness seems to be going around. 2020 has been marked by racial trauma, searing political division, and a global pandemic that’s claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Sometimes as my husband and I talk our way through some particularly troubling incident or idea we’ve encountered in reading or in living, I find myself completely overwhelmed by the not-rightness of the world, by history’s seemingly endless cycles of dehumanization. “I don’t know if I have what it takes to live in this world,” I’ve told him through sobs on more than one occasion this year.
But Alex is never phased by the world’s horribleness. “Oh, I don’t think anyone really does,” he always says. “It’s all wrong.” His favorite passage from the Bible is Luke’s account of Jesus’ return to his hometown. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” the messenger of the Most High God reads from Isaiah, “because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” What comes next is of course the best part. “Today,” Jesus announces bravely in the hearing of all those nosy neighbors and childhood playmates, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Are we living in a comedy? Or a tragedy? The answer, surely, is yes. The story of the world is a gripping saga of catastrophic defeats, cruel betrayals, grimy distortions, falls from grace. But it has its share of slapstick scenarios, love stories, transformations, and poetic justice, small hints of what’s to come. And it ends with a wedding. And it never ends.
[This reflection was written specifically for the Summer 2020 issue of Cultivating and first published there in July 2020.]