The Drama Review (October 6, 2017)

Dear tragedy-watching drama readers,

An acquaintance of mine—I’d be honored to call him friend if we were closer—spent a lot of time on the road for work-related travel. A year or so ago, he woke up in his hotel room in the middle of the night in a lot of pain, not realizing at the time that he was experiencing a pulmonary embolism. On his way to the bathroom, he blacked out. When he fell, he hit his head on the wall in such a way that he fractured some vertebrae and landed face down on the floor paralyzed from the neck down. When he later came to, he assumed he’d simply been asleep only to discover he couldn’t move.

For the next seven hours, he avoided suffocation by forcing himself to breath, unaware that with each breath, he was sucking carpet fibers into his lungs. The person he was supposed to meet the next morning had the hotel perform a wellness check which is when they discovered what had happened.

He remained on death’s doorstep for the next several weeks as doctors addressed, not only his paralysis, but the dire condition of his lungs. After a long arduous journey, he recovered but is now adjusting to a life of quadriplegia. He says, “My wife now has a 53 year old baby. She has to do everything for me, I can’t even scratch my nose.” He “danced” at his daughter’s wedding as she sat on his lap while he maneuvered his electric wheel chair around the dance floor.

He’s a man deeply devoted to his faith commitments, having spent his entire adult life in full-time ministry. He says he frequently gets asked why he thinks this happened to him. How can we understand it? What’s the difficult-to-understand purpose for such a tragedy? Why would such a bad thing happen to such a good man? It’s as though the askers are expecting an answer that sounds like this: “It happened so that (fill-in-the-blank).”

Here’s how he fills in the blank: “I have no idea. I blacked out, hit my head, and broke my neck. I can tell you what happened. Beyond that, I have no idea why it happened.”

To be fair, he also believes that, from God’s perspective, the blank has already been filled in. But from our earthly vantage point, it’s just a blank. He gets it now; we’ll get it later. That may sound cynical but there’s comfort in that.

It’s a feature of human nature to try as hard as we can to fill in the blanks of our uncertainties. Why did the tornado hit this house but not that one? Why did the family of five die and the drunk driver walked away? Why did that neighborhood get flooded but this one didn’t? How could a lone Dallas gunman, a disgruntled Marxist, kill a young and charismatic president? How could a lone Los Vegas gunman kill 60 innocent people and injured hundreds of others. It doesn’t make sense and we yearn to fill in the blanks. If we could just understand the why, maybe we could prevent the what from happening again.

Explainable tragedies are easier to handle than ones that seem random.

The search for answers is warranted and sometimes the mysteries are solved. But sometimes, we’re left saying with my friend, “I can tell you what happened. Beyond that, I have no idea why it happened.” Despite our best efforts, we’re left with tentative theories and incomplete explanations. And no good ways to fill in the blanks.

Maybe we’ll eventually understand the why behind the tragic drama of Los Vegas and by doing so, the likelihood of future mass killings will be lowered. But also it’s possible that we’ll never fill in that blank in a way that feels satisfying. Or that he did what he did for no discernible reason that gratifies our cravings to clear up ambiguities.

And that’s hard. So, we’re sometimes forced to take solace in the words of Scott Peck:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

That may sound cynical but there’s comfort in that.

8 replies
  1. Karen
    Karen says:

    Seems like even adults are much like Erikson’s young child stage of trying to make sense out of the world! If they can’t, they’ll fill in the blanks themselves and it’s usually worse than the reality but in this case, the reality was incredibly devastating! Hoping that we can get some answers to this shooting because it has injured all of us.

  2. Lwr
    Lwr says:

    Had a Vietnam veteran refer to Ecclesiastes 9:11, references how no man is exempt from chance. Very helpful in times of the “why” question.

  3. Adele
    Adele says:

    Thanks for writing ; we needed to hear that.
    Maybe part of the trying to understand is to alert others about the possible signs a person can give off beforehand. I like to think that there is some way we can help to prevent these tragedies. Yet, how easy it is for some people to hide their true selves and fool everyone, including those closest to them. We just can not control things.
    When my kids were young I felt reluctant for them to learn that life can be so very difficult. Then I saw that once they realized (both even verbalizing that fact to me) their thinking seemed to mature in countless ways and I felt relieved, grateful, and proud for them.

  4. Judy Van Der Wende
    Judy Van Der Wende says:

    Thank you Alan. My husband just had a seizure 1/2 hour ago, as the aftermath of falling and hitting his head when he had the flu 3 years ago. Your vignette of your friend especially hit home with me today!

    I deeply appreciate your column. As a psychologist, you have been enormously helpful in providing insights to better assist my clients deal with the manipulators in their lives. As a human, I thank you for giving me hope and some ideas to share with others. Honestly, it is a gift and a blessing to be able to reach out to those in need.

    Onward & upward!

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Your nice comments are very much appreciated. I’m glad my material has been helpful. That’s what I hope for. Thanks.

Comments are closed.