In the Aftermath of the Unfathomable
The Human Condition in Tragedy: looking to Montaigne, Hemingway and the Buddha for answers...
To comprehend the inexplicable is our deepest spiritual yearning. Before such devastation as visited this week, We question. We seek answers. Is it too early to look for consolation? When we are still amidst tragedy?
We ask where God is. Did we kill him off? On top of everything, we skulk around with that burden. Yes, we did that to too.
Even Jesus in the depth of his agony, cried out “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”.
Like so many, I charge through a litany of emotional states, each as futile as the last. Because I feel useless. My uselessness makes me angry; as much at my powerlessness as the inexplicability which befalls the living.
How? How, how, how.
The question hollows us, we hollowed beings; unable to grasp either the miracle of life or the cataract of mortality.
No, we cannot seek consolation. Not when bodies are amongst the rubble. To ask for consolation is a postscript. It has an ethical malignancy when the act itself is ongoing.
And so there we are.
Utterly human. Unable to help. Numb. Angry. Disbelieving.
Sometimes all you can do is name that which has happened. To catch your eyes as they turn away and force them back.
That is what I learnt on the beaches of Lesvos and in the mud of Idomeni.
To seek sanctuary divorces you from reality. Part of entry into the adult world is to look steadfastly into the suffering itself.
We forget that the Buddha was the original sadist. Who leaves a palace to confront this? Yet peer into the abyss he did.
“Suffering is wishing things were other than they are” Gautama Buddha
And so, what are we left with? The unfathomable. I don’t know how journalists do it. All I want is to write in euphemisms. Because I cannot grasp the savagery, the randomness, the unfairness. The truth.
Dear God, why?
How can a family go to bed, with all its dreams, its struggles, and aspirations intact - and end up under concrete?
It is composed wrong. The whole dam narrative. Why didn't you rewrite the script? Why? All a family tries to do is face brutal reality with love. With fucking teddy bears. And you answer with this? And you wonder why you are deprived of prayers? We're left with nothing. Just the exasperation. It cannot be that it can be. Surely?
There is no justice in the molten lava beneath us, no mercy in its tectonic plates.
It’s wrong. But it is.
In the message of the dead, a gift is left to us. Beyond all right and wrong, success and failure, we are united by our mortality. We want to bring light into the darkest things. But maybe in the last analysis, we have to be willing to sit in the absence of light itself. Dostoevsky was clear in his stance on this matter:
“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
But here’s the thing:
Research the topic of suffering, and you continually stumble upon its opposite.
As if the great minds are unwilling to just look at the thing itself. Like a neurosis: to have to cure it, to have to contemplate it, to have to console it.
We are within the midst of tragedy. Dare we be there? Dare we exist in the space before our yearning for consolation?
And I don’t mean it as a form of sadism.
I just mean facing the horror itself.
It is necessary. Because it is.
Edvard Munch understood it. Hazarded to look into it. And that is what he captured in “The Scream”. That poor man, peering into eternity itself. He cannot take it, this untrammelled confrontation with existence. Notice the bourgeoise couple walking behind him; an addition of genius. They're on their afternoon stroll, comfortable in the laws of physics. They highlight how rare it is; to actually "see it". They can't even see him seeing it! His scream, echoing in the void, materialises in the blood red sky above. As if playing off the patterns of his innermost fragmentation. What attracts us to this masterpiece? That we fucking get it.
Van Gogh also dared to see, to look into the abyss, not as something hellish but pulsing in vivid indifference. For a time he didn't need to attribute it good or evil, dark or light. And a century before telescopes revealed the kaleidoscopic make up of the heavens, he dared to gaze into its vastness. Yes, he paid for it with his mind, but how deep the seeing!
And yet, when I think of the victims, each contemplation feels an affront.
“The victims”; a term we should use less for the dead than for the living.
We know our routine.
We satiate ourselves by feasting on the gore. No one will admit it. But their agony is linked to our voyeurism.
The voyeurism of the Refugee Crisis. Outrage when a child is washed up on our shores. But when “they” try to get into our countries, we don’t mind forgetting. People still die daily on our shores. Even on the English Channel now.
The voyeurism of 9/11 where the football star Pat Tillman signed up to fight the enemy fulfilling an age-old civic duty. Only to wonder what he was doing in the dust of Afghanistan while America busied itself with shopping, burgers and forgetting.
The voyeurism of our support of the protestors of Iran. Was our outrage real? Or faux? Did the algorithm just move on? Or like Baudelaire predicted, is our amnesia just a perpetual form of recurring suicide?
The voyeurism of the Ukraine War. For a moment our society was unified. Now the defiance is mute. The only Western politician who stood up to the moment was a pantomime buffoon who couldn’t keep his story straight. They stick pins into Boris now, but the crazed blonde voodoo doll had his hour. Even if it all proved a kitsch joke.
I am fairly sure we cared at the time.
But us human beings, we deal with devastation with outpour. And numbness follows outpour.
We curse our egocentricity. Perhaps it is necessary that it is lanced occasionally by history. But soon enough our immersion in algorithms hoovers up our empathy.
I hope you will forgive me.
I am writing out my sadness. My anger. My numbness. Not in judgement. Of myself or others.
These times overwhelm. It’s as equally awful to look at the tragedy as to turn away.
I thought several times about getting in the van and going. Not in the fantasy that you can make a difference.
But in the knowledge that something is something.
And if you could have done something isn’t that worth everything?
One's own troubles can be borne with fortitude; only a monster of indifference can bear the sufferings of others with fortitude. Susan Ertz
And then the awful thing happens. Life goes on. You kid yourself that governments will take care of it. No. Time just grinds on and people just find ways to cope. Come the future, you're just like everyone else. You care. But not enough to drop your whole life and do what Hemingway called “the one thing, the only thing.” People celebrate how the great man lived, but they don't care think how he died: Basement, shotgun, ending. He talked of missing those times in the war, where reality made life simple and choices clear. He and Cobain, linked in the cellar's secrets, and its tears.
At the last, consolation is bound to life. We seek it within our suffering. It’s what makes us human.
I started this article hoping to offer solace by looking into this question.
But the horror was too close. To seek consolation discriminated against the dead. Worse, it insulted the living. God forbid, the living.
We cannot wish away the realities of the world. But we can console the survivors.
“Is not He Who listens to the distressed soul when it calls on Him, and removes its suffering, and makes you inheritors of the earth?” - The Quran 27:62 -
I want to draw on my experience with the refugees and with the Ukrainian resistance.
I urge: Do not be rendered mute. Activate your empathy. By helping one, you help the whole world. It can be simply: A donation. If not then contribute by researching and posting. My Iranian friends said: Be our voice. And so it is for the victims of the earthquake. Do not wait for tomorrow. The world comforts itself with forgetting. Be the person who doesn't. Prove it. Contribute now. Do not miss this moment. Choose an action. Commit to it. Get it done.
My thoughts are tangled in sorrow and frustration. I am not sure there is worth in this offering. But I do know we have to process tragedy in our own way. In any way we can for that matter.
There is a chain of meaning that links us to our ancestors. It is utterly indifferent to our modern fixations; all privileges of civilisation.
We must draw from all our sources of consolation, because it reconnects us to hope. It doesn’t make terrible things better. But it does make them endurable.
When tragedy visits, it is heavy with message. If we are willing to listen to it:
Live as best you can while you can.
We have walked through deserts, survived meteorites and shivered in ice ages. As awful as it is, life goes on. Never escaping tragedy, but always deepened by it. Always defiant before it. That is our DNA.
“It was indeed a great thing to be alive but only if you accepted it all; the pleasure, the pain, the excrement, the miseries and joy of the humble human body.” Michel de Montaigne
When all is said and done, it is a time for prayers. They don’t need to be attached to any version of God.
Tonight we are united by the prayer that this suffering ends. And that healing begins.
Perhaps that is our greatest tribute to the dead. To resolve to unify.
Out of such cruelty, that would at least be something.
Finally, I’d like to share a Psalm. It speaks beyond all religion, as the great ones do. If I were in the desert I would dream a desert God. If in the mountains, I would love Shiva. And if I were a modern man, I would recover meaning from the ashes of the altar and disperse them across the sea.
In that we give ourselves back to the mystery, God or no God.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me" even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. For you created my inmost being... - Psalm 139-
This was a beautiful yet devastating read. I feel like you’ve summed up perfectly things that I’ve been struggling to get down on the page. It’s all tangled up, we try to make sense of tragedy and sorrow and yet before we even can, there is more of it.
Thank you for all your thoughts. It is heartbreaking. What can we do? It does feel like so little when things are so big. But we still try to do something. x Lisa