This past week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. For many of us the only images of the event are those captured by Abraham Zupruder and the clutch of press photographers gathered at the Dallas airport. For others, the memories are more animate: the teary, halting crack of news anchor, Walter Cronkite, telling the nation of the terrible deed.
Indelible as this collection of terrible memories is, they are merely a jagged stone in the stream of time. Every decade seems to cast its own stone into the flow.
Perhaps you are old enough to remember the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Maybe your recollections get you to a childhood memory of the crisis at Little Rock Central High School. Moving past JFK’s fateful day in Dallas, you may have stored images of President Richard Nixon’s resignation speech and awkward wave as he boarded Marine 1.
If you’re in your late 40s, you likely have a day from high school in mind when the television broadcast white streaks of smoke trailing behind the exploding space shuttle, Challenger. A few years later the public conscience again was struck by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City. This then folds into the defining tragedy of the modern era: September 11, 2001.
As a species we seem to readily remember days of loss and suffering. The lessons of fear and danger carve deeply into our souls. We are want to discount the fact that the interregna of tragic reigns are full of hope, promise and progress.
In each of the aforementioned decades we could easily list innumerable triumphs of science, technology, medicine, art, literature and humanity, but somehow they don’t often glow as brightly as the flame that wounds us.
There’s a quip often attributed to the author William Butler Yeats, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
While the remark has no certain provenance linking it back to Yeats, the sentiment is still profound — even beyond its applicability to the sons of Erin. It is perhaps an artifact of the human condition that we submit to marking our days with this sharp punctuation.
Another equally renown writer, Oscar Wilde, had a different take on tragedy. Wilde accepted the violent punch that tragedy lands upon the public psyche, but he also recognized that a tragedy that, “… possesses artistic elements of beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the play. Or rather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder of the spectacle enthralls us.”
Wilde’s words are borne out by history. In the immediate aftermath, we are over-washed with grief and guilt; and by our own feelings of helpless anomic strangulation. As time passes, the dust clears and we see others respond with acts of charity, consolation and selfless generosity. It is here that the value of tragedy becomes apparent. It affords us the perspective to see people at their best. We may not lose the pain, but we meter it with the hopeful phoenix that arises from the ashes of despair.