Suffering and dealing with personal tragedy seem intertwined with the very existence of human beings. Most of us will suffer losses of extraordinary magnitude that leave us confused, misdirected, unhappy, and grieving. For millennia, religious leaders and philosophers have tried to make sense of personal tragedy, to fit it into a specific way of thinking or way of being that will hopefully help resolve problems for people who face terrible times. When we have not suffered personal tragedy, it’s easy to think the responses offered by a particular philosophy or religion will be adequate consolation.
Throughout time, humans have constructed numerous frameworks in which to consider or explain why suffering and loss exist. These constructs are based on long held religious beliefs or philosophical opinions, and sometimes both. Without identifying a particular faith or philosophy, since many of them connect to each other, you can still evaluate some of the ways people have tried to make sense of personal tragedy, past and present. This list is by no means exhaustive, but hits on some of the major philosophical and religious opinions on the meaning of suffering and loss:
1) There is a grand plan or order to the universe. This may be directed by a deity, or may exist without one. This order means that certain events can’t really be fully understood, since as humans we can’t know the plan. We merely know that our lives fulfill this plan and we should have faith in the order or master plan as having meaning beyond the personal. Essentially, when tragic circumstances occur, they do have a reason, which we may never completely perceive.
2) With or without the idea that all things fulfill universal order, the concept of eternal life and paradise may exist. Eternal life means that the experience of loss is only a tithe of our existence, as is life as a mortal being. We have hope that lost loved ones will be restored to us, or that we will meet them again in “the next life,” whether that life be a paradisaical heaven, or life on earth. When people think of a heaven environment, suffering today may have ultimate rewards in the hereafter, and all will be made clear as our minds and souls are wiped clean of such suffering.
3) Humans will always suffer because they are tied to earthly things. The more we lessen our desire to possess others or control our fate, the less we will suffer. Happiness is achieved by a detachment from that which is earthly. Living moment-to-moment and loving in a detached and non-possessive manner will minimize tragedies we face. Tragedy and the inability to recover from it means we are still too anchored to the earth, and we must work harder to create this detachment.
4) Life may be all comic nonsense and absence of pattern, and death or loss makes no sense at all. Moreover death is the final note of existence. Thus choosing to live despite daily tragedy, personal and impersonal, is adventurous work, and we should choose to live as happily as we can, since suffering is sure to present itself regularly. Lastly, if life is just a “once around” proposition, living it to the fullest and not dwelling on our own suffering are a better use of our short existences.
5) If we work hard enough, we can make sense of personal tragedy because its purpose will be revealed to us as life continues on its course. By using logic, observation, and energy, each tragedy becomes an opportunity to transform and better ourselves, hence the expression, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
Each individual may have evolved his or her own blend of the above ideas, or a person may have never considered the function of or explanation for, personal tragedy. Even when we have deeply held convictions on why tragedy occurs, we may still be challenged when it happens. It may be exceptionally hard to live with the idea that in our human lives “we can never know or understand” the meaning of personal suffering. It can be just as hard to live with the concept that such suffering is meaningless.
This inexorable tangle amounts to two kinds of suffering: the hurt that comes from losing something or someone precious, and the pain that comes from inability to understand it all. Not only do we grieve losses, but we ask, “Why me?” Most people want answers to this question, and not having them evokes a sense of being off balance and confused. People may dwell just as much on why they are suffering as they do on grieving for someone or something lost.
Some people soldier on through suffering and are buoyed up by their belief systems. For those who find their faith strengthening in the midst of tragedy, the answer to “Why me?” comes fairly easily. Tragedy makes sense because all actions fulfill an intended purpose. Some philosophies even discourage asking why, because to question a divine purpose is an attempt to subvert the divine intent.
Unfortunately, not everyone is able to hold wholly onto faith or their ideas on how the world works. Many find themselves in spiritual crisis, from which they may eventually recover, with stronger faith than before. Alternately, such crises can result in changing a person’s view completely.
There are some things we can do to make sense of personal tragedy in small ways. These don’t necessarily conflict with long held spiritual beliefs, and they may help relieve the dual suffering that loss engenders. The idea of making lemonade out of lemons may seem Pollyannaish in light of enormous loss, but we can begin to quietly observe (when we’re ready) not just the negative, but the positive changes that personal tragedy brings.
For instance, a woman might have a miscarriage and grieve significantly, as a result. That same woman could get pregnant a few months after the miscarriage has occurred, and have a child. Loving this second child doesn’t replace the first, but from a pure timeline perspective, the woman could not have had both children. It may be helpful in the grieving process to understand that only the tragedy of losing the first child could have resulted in having the second child.
We can also begin to create things out of tragic mess that will help honor a person or thing we have lost, and perhaps give a greater purpose to that loss. Even if you believe that personal tragedy is part of a great universal order or plan, there’s no reason not to try making things that will better yourself or others. Some people, for example, take on tragedy by creating support groups or organizations that might help prevent the same situations from occurring to others.
When Mark Klaas founded the Polly Klaas Foundation after his daughter’s murder, he did great good in establishing an organization that would help create better information flow about children that are missing, in the hopes that these children could be found before they are harmed. Similarly, moms who had lost their children to drunk drivers organized Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.). Now M.A.D.D. distributes information, helps to host alcohol-free events for teens, and continues to strive toward eliminating drunk driving fatalities and reducing drunk driving in general. Without extreme loss, these organizations and others like them would probably not exist. They are born of life’s bitter fruit and become assets people can point to as making practical sense.
Facing personal tragedy doesn’t mean you have to establish an organization. But willingness to ask, “How can this make me better?” may help provide a pragmatic and graceful means of recovering from life’s losses. Being open to noticing how life’s course may have changed in a positive direction, or just allowing your mind to question the purpose of tragedy in its aftermath, may be the best we can do, especially at first. The statement that hindsight is 20/20 can be applied to the deliberate act of attempting to construct meaning from horrible circumstances. As life continues, your hindsight allows you to find your own patterns and realize that even though these circumstances were never what you wanted, they still may have positive consequences, now or in the future.
Building your own meaning from tragedy is not easy work, and this cannot be stated enough. However, your attempts at this work, which may take time to accomplish, are important in soothing the mind’s quest for answers that are perhaps unanswerable. You may never be able to determine why, but you can decide how a great loss can positively construct your future. You may need help and time to find positive things in what is essentially negative, but in most cases you can find it eventually, if you commit to searching for it.
There is a wonderful quote from the poet Ranier Maria Rilke that cohesively summarizes the work ahead as you try to make sense of personal tragedy and to answer the question of why it occurred. He writes: “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”