Meaning in Tragedy

What does it mean to “find meaning in tragedy”? After a terrible event occurs, we often hear calls for us to “find meaning” and “search within ourselves”. What does that even mean?

Let me indulge in one of my more annoying tendancies: trotting out the actual definiton of tragedy. As understood by Aristotle, a tragedy is the downfall of a person due to their inherent character flaws. Obscure? Maybe. But it is important to note that most of what the media and politicians denote as tragedies aren’t really, at least not in the formal sense. You see, the entire point of a Greek tragedy is that it promotes catharsis, or spiritual cleansing. From real tragedies, we are meant to derive meaning, to go back and question our assumptions about the world around us, and to come away with the knowledge of how to avoid such a downfall ourselves.

But senseless acts of violence, nor awful luck, are tragedies. That is not to say that they are not terrible, awful events, but they arent tragedies. They are the shocking reminders that the world we live in is governed largely by chance. Some get sick while others stay healthy. Some are caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, while others avoid such misfortunes.

When I first heard of the Boston Marathon bombing, I kept prodding myself to understand what had happened. Surely, these two brothers couldn’t have a reason for killing and maiming innocent people they didn’t even know. But I was unsatisfied with my answer of ‘no reason’. So I kept searching. After a week of being glued to sensationalist news coverage, I can honestly say that I did not come away with a feeling of catharsis. Instead, I came away feeling lucky that my family was safe, and that there were heroes at the scene to help those not so fortunate. But I had gleaned nothing from the brothers. All they had done was commit a senseless act of cold-blooded murder. There is nothing in that part of their psyche I can identify with–and thus no meaning for me to find.

There’s not much we can learn from moments like that, besides the fact that, as difficult as it is to accept, we are subject to the whims of Lady Luck. Sometimes, we can’t find meaning when something terrible occurs. And that’s OK. There’s no meaning to find when you hear of students being massacred, or peaceful protesters being shot. All we can, and indeed should, do is mourn what has happened, and resolve to continue to fight for justice. We can’t find meaning in the senseless.