Part of the tenor of Greek tragedies involves their inevitability. In a Greek tragedy, the end is known from the beginning, and the actions that the characters take to try to avoid that destiny only more inescapably wrap them in that fate. Delphic divine warnings and the attempts of people to avoid what has been destined for them end up leading all the more poignantly to the promised tragic end. What makes Greek tragedies all the more gloomy is that the people in them are characters of nobility far beyond the normal but whose human flaws end up all the more tragically ending up in a darker fate than that enjoyed by many people.
This is a sort of inevitable tragic discourse, where what seem like minor and inconsequential decisions end up leading inexorably to a dark fate. Such moral plays were common in the Middle Ages (we know them as “Everyman” plays), and are still to be found in the present world, even if they are largely unrecognized as morality plays. The television series “Breaking Bad” is a classic example of such a morality play, where initially inconsequential choices like a dying man selling meth to pay the bills become massive and ugly tragedies involving dark shadows of the breakdown of society. The tragedy is inevitable because its early steps can be easily justified but make it difficult for people to humble themselves and change their ways later on. At most points the tragedy could be avoided but the steps required to avoid it seem far more difficult than the attempts to cope with the bad situation that is by making them worse.
Why are we drawn to tragedy? Part of it is the fact that tragedy always seems to be around us, and because it is ready material to be twisted and contorted to fit our agendas. For example, to use one of the more politically inflammatory uses of tragedy, any kind of mass shooting with guns seems to feed into the agenda of some to strive against the presence of guns in general, making reportage of such events to be a tiresome and repetitive and predictable sort of message, while other more complicating elements of the stories themselves seem to ignored. In such a mindset, the outbreaks of savage violence in our lives and our world become tidy and convenient tragedies to serve an existing and corrupt political agenda, while the largely innocent dead are simply unwitting martyrs for a particular anti-gun agenda, for example, rather than being a thoughtful case of looking at how in our lives we are all never terribly far away from potential tragedy given the evil of this world (evil that includes the pervasiveness of slander and disrespect for others in our conversation).
When done well, tragedy can help us realize that our lives are not entirely in our own control, but that we are responsible for how we deal with the situations that we are given to handle, and that we often bear unwitting responsibility in bringing our tragedy upon ourselves, whether it is through inattention or incaution or naivete. As human beings, we are constantly in harm’s way, and it is inevitable that at some point we will be in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffer for it, not because we are more wicked than others, but because of time and chance and circumstance. It is a difficult thing in the midst of such horrors, or in their aftermath, to properly parse between simple accident and what one should have known and done better, and to distinguish in ourselves and others the difference between folly and wickedness.
Yet tragedy is not the end, especially for those of us who believe in a God who works all things for the best even if all things are not good. The discordant and dissonant elements of our life will eventually lead to a deeper and more resonant beauty and harmony, eventually. The suffering and scars of our lives will allow us to have compassion on others who have endured similar suffering themselves. Sometimes it is hard to see how things will work together for the good, but we have to believe that if we behave in a godly fashion and show love even to those who hate us and slander us and behave in an unchristian manner towards us that things will work out alright in the end. Who knows how long that will be, though?