Life as tragedy and comedy

I didn’t originally intend this as a reflection for Remembrance Sunday, but I happen to be posting it today and it seems strangely appropriate…

If all the world is a stage and each of us merely players, what kind of play is it a stage for?

Is the cosmic drama a comedy where all’s well that ends well, or a tragedy where all ultimately falls apart and comes to naught? Does it finish with all living happily ever after, or does it end tragically in death, pointlessness, absurdity and oblivion?

Of course, a comedy (in the Shakespearian or Greek sense) doesn’t have to be happy all the way through. A comedy can be full of tears and wrong turns, so long as all comes right in the end; indeed, the earlier tears make the later joy the sweeter. Conversely, a tragedy doesn’t have to be sad all through. There can be much laughter and joy, but if the story ends tragically the earlier joy makes the later pain all the bitterer.

It’s like the game of ‘good news, bad news’. The good news is I just discovered a new species of spider… the bad news is it’s crawling up your trouser leg… the good news is it isn’t venomous… the bad news is the snake climbing up your other leg is… (and so on). If you’re inventive, you can keep it up for ages, alternately snatching failure from the jaws of success and vice versa. But whether the whole story is a good or a bad news one depends entirely on how it ends, whether the bad or good news gets the last, defining word.

Unhappy endings?

When I was growing up I hated stories to have sad endings; it seemed wrong and unfair, and I felt cheated. It was clear that everything should end well, at least for the goodies, the heroes and heroines, the characters we’d come to care about and identify with. (The baddies, if they were bad enough, should of course get their come-uppance… though maybe they could be allowed a shot at redemption if they showed sufficient remorse.)

So stories like the Arthurian legend which ended tragically just seemed wrong; a violation of how things were fundamentally meant to be. I couldn’t understand why anyone would make up stories like this, let alone choose to read them. It was just deliberately putting yourself through unnecessary pain.

Of course, as I grew up I started to learn that the world isn’t always a place of happy endings – indeed, is a place of sad endings more often than not. What I felt deep down should be the case simply wasn’t, much of the time.

So I learnt of wars, plagues and famines indiscriminately wiping out normal people, though these were always distant from me in time or miles. Closer to home, people I knew died unexpectedly, including friends my own age or younger. Relationships broke up. Things went wrong and didn’t go right again. And I myself experienced episodes of sadness and pain that seemed pointless, meaningless. Was the world a tragedy after all?

Life as tragedy

I have to admit that now, looking at the world dispassionately and not through Christian eyes, it looks very much to me like the stage for a universal tragedy, or at best a very black comedy in pretty poor taste.

We’re born in hope and, to some degree, innocence. The world has much beauty and loveliness, and even apparently goodness and meaning. There is all the promise and potential of life, of love, of discovery, of achievement and fulfilment and significance. Things will surely work out well.

But we bear the seeds of our own downfall within us. We’re unwittingly born with the baggage of our evolutionary and genetic heritage and all the emotional, relational and mental brokenness of our parents and our parents’ parents. And we’re born into a world of entropy, gravity and inertia.

And then there’s that mysterious thing ‘sin’ – our innate, inborn propensity to mess things up; to think and behave and relate in ways that are antithetical to human flourishing.

Sooner or later all these implacable forces impede and disrupt our heady upward rush, our blossoming. Things go wrong. Things break and fall apart. We make a mess of our lives and our relationships; we spoil things. Our dreams come to naught, and we’re left lost, empty and dirty among their ruins. Or at the very least we feel a nagging sense of meaninglessness despite our achievements.

Everything is meaningless?

If we look at the bare facts of physical existence, it’s hard to see how life is anything but a tragedy in the end. In physical terms at least, it really does seem that everything is meaningless. As soon as we’re born we’re set on the path that leads inexorably to death in only a few short years. Everyone dies – the sure hallmark of a Shakespearian tragedy. Every flower fades, every beauty decays. Everything and everyone we love, everything we’ve achieved, will crumble and fade and in the end be forgotten.

You only have to walk round a cemetery to realise the truth of this. Every gravestone bears a story of loss, of loving relationship ended in the inevitability of death. And if you read the old headstones, there is often a more poignant story. The engraved words promise that the departed person will be remembered forever, yet even the words are fading and will soon be obliterated by time and weather – the forces of entropy – and there are none left to do the remembering for they have all joined the departed under the forgetful earth.

‘In the long term we’re all dead’, as some wit observed. Death, not life, is our normal state. Indeed the whole of human existence is just an eye-blink in the unimaginable aeons of the cosmic drama. And on that grander scale, we know that the entire vast physical universe we inhabit is on a one-way course to self-destruction. In the end, entropy wins; all will be chaos and darkness and stillness.

Life as comedy?

So is the Christian hope that ‘all shall be well’, or that ‘love wins’, merely wishful thinking in the face of the world’s unbearable tragedy? Is the hope for some kind of life after death just a sop to stop us going mad at the absurdity of life and the inevitable loss of all we hold dear?

Do we have any real legitimate reason to hope that at some future time the world will be renewed and its people resurrected and re-united, never to die again? Do we have any basis for believing that the essence persists in some way, though the physical decays?

I’m not a great one for quoting the Bible these days, but some words of Paul to the Corinthians come to mind here. ‘If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile… [and] we are of all people most to be pitied’. If there is no resurrection, then there is no ultimate hope. We live, we die, we decay, we’re forgotten, eventually the universe ends, everything comes to nothing. Then truly everything is meaningless.

But… if Christ really has been raised to new life – to a new kind of life, the life eternal and imperishable, the life of the Kingdom – then we do have real hope. Then truly all is well that ends well; then the world’s tragedy is subsumed in the most glorious comedy – the divine comedy, indeed. It’s God’s great and final joke against all the powers of evil and entropy.

This is the good news, surely, if anything is; the clinching good news story that rounds off the whole long ‘good news, bad news’ rigmarole. Perhaps there’s a reason why we innately feel that stories should have a happy ending; because the Author of all stories thinks so too, and his longing is in us.

Do we have any right or reason to hope for this? I can’t offer knock-down proof, though the evidence for Christ’s resurrection strikes me as compelling on so many levels. And if God really is love, then it seems to me that the resurrection is (almost) inevitable as the vindication and triumph of Love and Goodness over death and evil and entropy. Otherwise all would truly be meaningless.

Be that as may, it seems to me that it is the only thing we really have any right or reason to hope for. And it also seems to me that it’s the only real hope we have in the end.

PS I’d hugely recommend Frederick Buechner’s short book The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. Buechner has a poet’s soul and a preacher’s gift, and I don’t know any other Christian author who writes as well. It’s worth it for the chapter on Fairy Tale alone.

Postscript: tragedy and comedy intertwined

So what do we do when we’re faced with the unthinkable – with the loss of loved ones, spouses, children, friends? We’re all touched by this, and Christians aren’t immune. Just last week I heard that a friend from my Uni days is desperately ill with bacterial meningitis. Our whole church is currently praying for one of our number, a girl in her late teens who has been battling leukaemia and whose life is in the balance. Two years ago I attended two funerals of church friends, one of whom was my age. I could go on. Belief in Jesus doesn’t magically guarantee that everything works out how we feel it should; not just yet.

As Paul put it, ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. But he could also have said that in the midst of death we are in life. In this world, comedy and tragedy are always intertwined. Some day, our loved ones will die, and we too will die. Tragedy will touch every one of us, and will seem final. But I believe that comedy has the last word; that life and light and love have the last word. He is risen indeed; hallelujah.

More like this…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Church calendar, Dark night of the soul, Future, Love of God, The faith journey, Tragedy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Life as tragedy and comedy

  1. Nigel Harris says:

    As always, movingly honest and very well written. I’m a glass-half-empty creature myself, but still think your analysis tends a little too much towards the bleak! in grossly simplistic terms, I suppose I see this life as a fairly even-handed mixture of good and bad news, with heaven (or the hope of it) introducing a distinct and crucial third element – ‘the best news’, if you like. And there really is something deep in all of us, isn’t there (not only playwrights) which hates the thought of a play – even a not very enjoyable one – ending after, say, Act II or Act IV? There’s something deeply human, and hence presumably God-given, in our need for the fifth act of both a comedy and a tragedy. That’s one of the reasons why the Christian doctrine of the afterlife has always seemed to me logical and somehow ‘right’, rather than merely fanciful; and why I’m not sure I fully agree with St Paul’s ‘of all men the most to be pitied’ analysis. Someone, from memory Pascal, said something very wise about us all feeling the need to ‘bet’, one way or another on the, and our, ultimate outcome. That goes for Christians as much as anyone else; but we’re fortunate, I guess, in being able to focus with a clear conscience on the best news, rather than (or as well as) the worst news.

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    • Greetings! Yes, I’m aware that this piece was a little more Schopenhauer than Candide! (Though as a fan of Wallander, Morse and Rebus, I’d have thought that might be right up your street…!)

      The fictional character I identify with most is C.S. Lewis’s Puddleglum, who says ‘I’m a chap who always likes to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it’. I’m not a classic pessimist, but I do tend to look on the dark side of life. That way, the light shines brighter when it does come – and it generally does eventually. My favourite part of the Bible currently is the ultra-bleak Psalm 88, along with the world-weary Ecclesiastes. But my next favourite is ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (which incidentally I’ve just turned into a carol.)

      I very much like the analogy of a play whose final act we have not yet experienced – but of which we’ve glimpsed a foretaste in the resurrection of Christ. I certainly believe very strongly in hope, and I also acknowledge that there’s plenty of good news mixed in with the bad here and now. But in light of things like the Philippines typhoon and a constant stream of bad news stories, I do sometimes struggle to see the more joyful side of life.

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  2. lotharson says:

    Your posts are so long and profound that I should probably take one month before answering you 😉

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