In the Shadow of Oedipus

[The following is a chapter from Dr. Julie Ponesse’s book, Our Last Innocent Moment.]

The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves.

Sophocles, Oedipus Rex

My experience has been that one of the most heart-wrenching things in life is to watch someone make decisions that lead to their own destruction. It’s not just watching a person suffer that is hard but watching them make the very choices that create their suffering. And, maybe even worse, realizing that we do this ourselves.

Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Rex, puts this phenomenon on the stage. It tells the story of Oedipus, a man prophesied from birth to murder his father and marry his mother despite his sincerest attempts to avoid doing either. Sophocles shows us that it is precisely because of these attempts that Oedipus is propelled towards his unfortunate end. At the end of the play, Oedipus realizes that his suffering is due to his own choices but, by that point, it is too late to change his course. So ashamed of what he has done, he blinds himself and flees into exile.

In the last essay, I considered whether our civilization is on the verge of collapse. That idea may have struck you as a bit extreme, but even just a cursory look at how we are faring, individually and collectively, suggests that the threads that hold us together are unraveling at a rate outpacing our ability to restitch them. In public and in private, online and in real life, our civil and moral deterioration is affecting how we view persons, how we raise and educate children, to what degree we are willing to sacrifice each other, and how inclined we are even to rewrite history.

In September, 2022, Trish Wood published a disturbingly diagnostic article called, “We Are Living the Fall of Rome (and it’s being forced on us as a virtue)” in which she describes us as “a doomed culture pretending not to see its own demise.” Wood cites “the normalization of abhorrent behaviour, the race-baiting and censorship, the cruelty and banishment of anyone who objects to the bizarre carnival unfolding in our streets” as evidence of our self-destructive behaviour. Our greed, our collectivism, our relativism, and our nihilism have created fault lines across every facet of life. And Covid seemed only to punctuate our destruction, leaving us with the deep wounds of “pandemic trauma.”

Wood isn’t wrong. Well beyond anything Covid did to us, or made salient, our society seems to be at a tipping point and it isn’t clear that we could shift back to where we were even if we tried. We are a broken people who seem to be breaking a little more every day. 

Here, I want to take the thesis of the last essay a step further and explore what might be causing our collapse. Is it a coincidence that we are suffering in so many different areas of life right now? Is it a little misstep on an otherwise progressive path? If we are on the verge of collapse, is it part of the arc of all great civilizations? Or, like Oedipus, do we suffer from some tragic flaw — a collective destructive character trait that we all share — that is responsible for bringing us to this place at this moment in history? 

What Ails Us?

All tragedies, classical and modern, follow a very specific pattern. There is some central character, the tragic hero, who is reasonably like us but who suffers terribly because of his tragic flaw, the internal imperfection that causes him to damage himself or others. Oedipus’ flaw is his excessive pride (or hubris) in thinking not only that he could escape his fate but that he alone can save Thebes from the plague placed upon it. It’s his pride that drives him to flee his adoptive parents and his pride that causes him to get angry enough to unknowingly kill the man (who turns out to be his father) at the crossroads who will not let him pass. His story moves us because, as Sigmund Freud wrote, “It might have been ours.”

One risk of searching for a (collective) tragic flaw to explain our destruction is that it presumes that we are protagonists living out a drama instead of people living in the real world. But our words aren’t crafted by playwrights, and our movements aren’t staged by directors. We envision our own futures, make our own choices, and act on those choices (or so it seems). And so a question is whether real people, and not just literary characters, can have tragic flaws. 

An interesting place to look for an answer is past moments of crisis in which we saw ourselves as, or made ourselves into, protagonists. WWII Britain is a good example, in part because it is relatively recent, and in part because it shares many of the experiences — of fear, social isolation, and an uncertain future — that we are experiencing now. When you read about how the British people rallied together, you can clearly see a sense of agency and moral purpose, and how some of the language used to describe this coming together straddled reality and fiction. A good example is a comment made by John Martin, Winston Churchill’s private secretary, to describe how the British people transformed themselves from victims to protagonists: “Brits came to see themselves as protagonists on a vaster scene and as champions of a high and invincible cause, for which the stars in their courses were fighting.”

It is also helpful to remember why the Ancient Greeks wrote tragedies in the first place. In the 5th century BC, the Athenians were reeling from decades of war and a deadly plague that killed one quarter of their population. Their lives were framed with uncertainty, loss, and grief, and the magnitude of the realization that life is fragile and largely beyond our control. The tragic playwrights — Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus — dramatized the experiences of war and death in order to make some sense of the chaos they caused, to create a semblance of order and reason. Tragic characters were not so much literary inventions as they were reflections of the actual experience of suffering that was all too common in the ancient world. And so, even though the fantastical battles between superhuman and the Olympian gods might seem a long leap from our more mundane lives, the lessons contained within the tragedies might still offer us something relevant and useful.

So I take it as a live and interesting question; are we suffering from a collective tragic flaw? And if so, what could it be? Taking a cue from the tragic playwrights — the Greeks, Shakespeare and even Arthur Miller — the candidates include hubris or excessive pride (Oedipus, Achilles, and The Crucible’s John Proctor), greed (Macbeth), jealousy (Othello), willful blindness (Gloucester in King Lear), and even extreme hesitancy (Hamlet).

In a way, I think we are suffering from all of these, from a complex web of tragic flaws. Our scientism predisposes us to unchecked ambition, our greed makes us excessively self-focused, and our blindness makes us numb to the suffering of others. But when I consider what might be the nexus at which all these flaws intersect, nothing seems to define us at this point in history more than our arrogance; arrogance in thinking we can write perfect essays and curate perfect homes; arrogance in thinking we can eradicate disease and malfunction, and even escape death; arrogance in thinking we can go to the limits of outer space and the depths of the sea without incident. 

But our arrogance is precise. It’s not just that we think we are better than others, or better than we have ever been. We think we can be superhuman. We think we can become perfect. 

The Perfect Storm

In an earlier essay, I argued that scientism has captured all sectors of society, powerfully shaping our response to Covid and, quite likely, to future crises. But why did we become doting followers of scientism in the first place?

As a starting point, let’s take a look at what was going on in academia in the years leading up to 2020. 

For a long time, the implicitly accepted value theories in medical ethics were hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure) and eudaimonism (the pursuit of flourishing via a life of virtue). But, at some point, these theories gradually began to be supplanted by a third contender: moral perfectionism.  

You are undoubtedly familiar with perfectionism as a character trait, the pursuit of excessively high personal standards of performance. But moral perfectionism adds the normative component that, to attain the good life, humans ought to become perfect in these ways. (Implied is the assumption that it is possible to do so.) 

Moral perfectionism is hardly new. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle’s moral perfectionism took the form of a virtue theory, claiming that humans have a telos (a purpose or goal), which is to attain a state of flourishing or well-being (eudaemonia). In simple terms, we need first to develop virtues like courage, justice, and generosity if we are to be capable of living well. Moral perfectionism took on a slightly different form in the 19th century with the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill for whom a fulfilled, virtuous life is cultivated by developing what he called “higher pleasures” (mental pleasures versus pleasures of the body). 

But, by the time we got to the 21st century, moral perfectionism had morphed so completely it became unrecognizable. Originally meaning that we could actualize our potential by improving our natures, perfectionism now sets the unattainable goal of literally becoming free of defects. The perfectionism of today is the inhuman expectation that our lives are picture-perfect and reel-ready, that we must be superhuman in our physiology, our psychology, our immunity, and even our morality. We curate and style. We prescribe, vaccinate, shame, blame and surgically alter. And we expect as much, or more, from others.

One reason I think our culture was so keen to embrace mass Covid vaccination is that medical intervention, more generally, has taken on an odd sort of social currency. We rack up specialist visits, prescriptions, and surgeries like desirable partners on a dance card. This is a reflection, I think, of the influence of scientism and perfectionism in our lives; it means we are ‘on board’ with the idea of rooting out and eliminating every last personal flaw and using the latest technology to do so.

This is reflected, I think, in the lack of patience and grace we seem to have for those who choose to forgo whatever medical intervention is deemed able to ‘fix’ what ails them. I know of a woman who has suffered from depression for as long as anyone can remember. She refuses to take medication or even get a diagnosis. Most of her immediate family has diminishing grace for her simply because they believe she isn’t taking advantage of the proposed solutions. She won’t do the protocol, so she can “suffer the consequences.” 

The same intolerance exists for those who resist Covid vaccination. The common response from the devout pro-vaxxers is that we should refuse medical care to those who won’t take advantage of the solution offered to them. They won’t do the protocol, so they can “suffer the consequences.” (“Let them die,” as Canada’s largest national newspaper recommended.) 

It’s all so simple. Or is it? 

Perfectionism, when it comes to addressing our physical or mental infirmities, is the presumption that leaves no room for questions, nuance, individual differences, reflection, apology, or revision. And it didn’t emerge ex nihilo in 2020; it started to gain traction decades earlier, as it needed to if it was to mold our Covid response. 

Punctuated Perfectionism

There is evidence that this literal and extreme form of perfectionism started to settle into our personalities over 40 years ago. According to a 2019 study, unprecedented numbers of people began to experience self-oriented perfectionism (setting excessively high expectations for oneself), other-oriented perfectionism (doing the same for others), and socially-prescribed perfectionism (believing that one is held to extremely high standards by society) as early as the 1980s. In 2012, the UK Association for Physician Health found that perfectionism is a growing trait among doctors, in particular, who tend to be overly critical of their behaviour, leading to deleterious mental and physical effects.    

In his recent book, The Perfection TrapThomas Curran writes that a perfect storm of globalization and wider environmental factors, including the increased presence of social media in our lives, created favourable conditions for socially-prescribed perfectionism. He writes, 

I found that our world has become increasingly globalised over the last 25 years, with the opening up of borders to trade and employment, and much higher levels of travel,… In the past we were judged more on a local scale, but with the opening of economies what we are seeing is that people are being exposed to these additional global ideals of perfection.

While we might have expected globalization to increase our awareness of others, and therefore our tolerance for diversity, it also provides greater opportunities for comparison. Whether you are making dinner or building a stock portfolio, globalism widened the lens of comparison at a dizzying rate, creating endless opportunities to be made aware of our flaws.

The highly edited and curated aspect of social media exacerbates this effect. Images of strangers at carefully selected moments of their lives distorts our perceptions of what real life is and what it can be. The ability to take 50 photos of a single moment and then delete all but the best creates a false impression of what life is really like. And the very idea of curation — the process of editing our lives as though they are to be part of a museum exhibit — angles us towards perfectionism.

Political Perfectionism

Another unfortunate effect of perfectionism is that it lends itself to a certain kind of political organization in which the state has substantial centralized control over people’s lives: statism. 

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant presciently argued that a perfectionist society requires government to regulate human coexistence. This, I suspect, is precisely why we saw so little resistance to the increasingly rigid Covid regulations which framed every part of our lives. During Covid, there was no thought that humans could be left to conscientiously manage their own interactions, or even that individual physicians could responsibly guide them. Free choice is irreducibly individualistic, and therefore messy. It allows that different people with different values will make different, and therefore non-perfecting, choices. And so free choice was among the first things to be sacrificed as perfectionism gained ground in early 2020.

Perfectionism is precisely the value theory one would expect to predominate in a culture captured by scientism, and it is the one we find framing every facet of our lives today. Willingly and with pride, we laid informed consent on the altar of perfectionism not to protect ourselves, but to perfect ourselves. Individual freedom became the naive idea that we thought 21st century civilization had matured beyond.

If our tragic flaw is perfectionism, it would explain a lot. It would explain our comfort with conformity and compliance, since perfectionism requires us to eliminate the anomalies that detract from the goal of self-perfection. It would explain our obsession with Artificial Intelligence, pharmaceutical enhancement, cryogenics, and MAID, and with the general desire to transcend our limitations. It would explain why we thought Zero-Covid — the perfect eradication of the virus — was possible. It would explain our interest in curation and our intolerance of the weak, messy parts of life. And it would explain why we favour closure and judgment and the desire to cut people out of our lives with surgical precision rather than working through the tricky parts of a relationship. For better or worse (far worse, I think), our myopic obsession with perfectionism became the monotheism of the 21st century.

Perfectionism and Pandemic Psychology

So, how did the rise of perfectionism in society, generally, culminate in our hyper-perfectionist tendencies during COVID? 

A recent study explored the effect of perfectionism on our psychological states during Covid. It showed that perfectionism increased not only the likelihood of experiencing Covid-related stress but also the tendency to conceal health problems in order to be seen by others as perfect. For perfectionists, the possibility of getting sick can be interpreted as an obstacle to achieving flawlessness in various domains of life such as physical appearance, work, or parenting. For the “self-critical perfectionist” and the “narcissist,” in particular, personal value is determined largely by external validation, and so virtue-signaling became unsurprisingly prominent during Covid. Covid pushed so unrelentingly on our perfectionist buttons that we tragically drove ourselves into a state of social and personal destruction. 

And herein lies the problem. Perfectionism is not just vain or misguided ambition. It reflects a false perception of who we are, a failure to properly “know thyself.” It shows that we give ourselves — our strengths and our weaknesses — as little attention as we give others. In setting our sights on perfection, we forget that we aren’t capable of it and, more importantly, that the beauty in life doesn’t consist of it.  

This is one of the greatest lessons the Greek tragedies teach us: that we must accept, and ultimately embrace, the basic uncertainties and imperfections of life. The contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum draws on lessons from the Greek play Hecuba to make this point:

The condition of being good is that it should always be possible for you to be morally destroyed by something you couldn’t prevent. To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.

For Nussbaum, and no doubt for Hecuba herself, the paradox of life is that, while our imperfections are what expose us to suffering, the worst tragedy of all is to try to safeguard ourselves to the point that we can no longer live as the beings we are. 

So much of our perfectionism is tied up with hyper-confidence in technology and its ability to suppress the contingencies of life that cause us pain and suffering. Two thousand years ago we invented ploughs, bridles, and hammers to gain some control over the untamed wilderness around us; today, we invent passwords, security systems, and vaccines. But we forget that using technology to improve our lives requires more than mere technical accomplishment; it requires the practical wisdom needed to keep it working for us rather than us becoming enslaved to it.

The very possibility of relationships exposes us to risk. It requires that we trust and accept promises from other people, and even just that they continue living in a state of good health. The other day, I ran into a woman from our local grocery store with whom I have come to be friendly. I remarked on how I hadn’t seen her in a while. She said her sister passed away unexpectedly, 2 months after a cancer diagnosis. She also said that, in the midst of mourning this loss, she was also trying to figure out who she was without a sister, without her best friend, navigating a chaotic world as a new and lonely person.

The response to these losses is often to recoil to protect ourselves. When people die, break promises, or in other ways become unreliable, it’s natural to want to retreat into the thought “I’ll just live on my own, for myself.” You see this everywhere today: people severing relationships that become a bit too burdensome, diving into a world of screens in which the characters are more reliable, even if ultimately less fulfilling.

On top of turning away from relationships, we use certainty as an extra layer of protection from risk and uncertainty. The novelist Iris Murdoch hypothesizes that we deal with the uncomfortable uncertainty of life by feigning surety and confidence. Unwilling to fully live into what we are — anxious and uncertain creatures, tender and terrified and fragile throughout so much of life — we train ourselves into being consumed in false certitudes. 

Isn’t this what we are doing today? We feign certainty about the origins of Covid, the true causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the intentions of global political actors. But, when we decide to live this way — perfectly certain and full of pride — we aren’t just losing the value that relationships bring to life; we’re making a choice to live less humanly since these are the things that make life meaningful.

What it is to have a tragic flaw is not just to make poor life choices. Oedipus didn’t just choose poorly; instead, every particular thing he decided to do was ironically and essentially linked to his downfall. It was the self-righteous thought that he was single-handedly ridding Thebes of the source of its plague that propelled him towards his own destruction. Seeing himself as its saviour made him its destroyer. 

In a similar way, I believe our obsession with perfectionism is ironically and essentially tied to the fateful choices we made with respect to Covid-19 and in so many other areas of our lives. We are not, it seems, so unlike the tragic characters of literature. By using technology unguided by wisdom to try to control the world around us, we are becoming its slaves. By cancelling others, we are making it impossible to live well, ourselves. And it is our pretence of unity — “We’re all in this together,” “Do your part” — that is dividing us more than ever. Our tragic flaw, it seems, is ironically and powerfully creating our own destruction. 


How do we cure ourselves of this tragic flaw? 

In literature, tragic flaws get worked out by a specific process called catharsis, a process of cleansing or purification in which the tragic emotions — pity and fear — are aroused and then eliminated from the reader’s (or viewer’s) psyche. Catharsis gets worked out in the theatre much like therapy does in real life; by giving the audience an opportunity to vicariously work through intense emotions and their tragic consequences in the lives of literary characters, emerging somehow rebalanced.

It is not by coincidence that the experience of catharsis is visceral in the way that a good cry takes it out of you, physically. And the origins of the term certainly reflect its connection with physical purgation.

Aristotle typically used catharsis in a medical sense, referring to the evacuation of katamenia — menstrual fluid — from the body. The Greek word “Kathairein” appears even earlier than this, in the works of Homer who used the Semitic word “Qatar” (for “fumigate”) to refer to purification rituals. And, of course, the Greeks had the idea of miasma, or “blood guilt,” which could only be cured by spiritually purifying acts. (The classical example is Orestes whose soul is purified when Apollo douses him with the blood of a suckling pig.) In the Christian tradition, the ritual of drinking Christ’s symbolic blood during the communion sacrament helps us to remember his sacrificial death which cleansed us of unrighteousness. The general idea is that our emotions can be whipped up and then released just as we might hydrate, fast, and sweat to purge ourselves of physical toxins.

Catharsis is an integral part of the healing process. Its purpose is to create an awakening, a process of seeing what you have done, who you are, and how your choices impact yourself and others. That awakening is often painful, like the first moments of opening your eyes in the morning or like the prisoners who are blinded by the light as they emerge from Plato’s metaphorical cave. 

It is not a coincidence, I think, that so many people describe their falling away from the Covid narrative as a kind of “waking up.” It’s a matter of seeing things in a new light, seeing ducks where you once only saw rabbits. There is a discomfort to it. But there is also eventual relief in that discomfort as the truth starts to come into view.

If we have a tragic flaw, and if it is perfectionism, then what sort of catharsis might cure us of it? What underlying emotions are involved and how can we whip them up so we can purge ourselves of them?

A good place to start is to think about how collectives — groups of people — tend to respond to emergency or trauma events. September 11 comes easily to mind. Though it was over 20 years ago now, I remember the days following 9/11 with crystal clarity. I especially remember the way it arrested and solidified us, socially. I was standing in line at a coffee shop on my way to class when I first heard the news. Well before the era of smartphones, everyone stopped to gather in the corner of the shop around a television set that was covering the event. You could hear people breathing, it was so still and quiet. People were looking for some explanation in each other’s eyes. Some held each other, most cried. 

I was a graduate student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario at the time and I remember everyone talking about it when I got to campus. Classes were cancelled, “Closed” signs appeared in store windows. It became the topic of seminars for weeks to come. News coverage overtook regularly scheduled programming for days. I was riveted but exhausted. The media images — of soot-covered firefighters, personal items protruding from the rubble, waves of dust billowing through the streets, stories of children whose parents would never come home and, of course, the searing image of Father Mychal Judge’s body being carried out of the rubble. 

These images, the ongoing media coverage, the endless conversations and tears and hugs all exhausted us. We were talked out, hugged out, and cried out. In the days, weeks and even months afterwards, I remember feeling physically weak from it all. Maybe we did more than we needed to do but all the sharing was our cathartic release. It was painful but it somehow cleansed us and drew us together.

We engaged in what psychologists call “social sharing” — the tendency to recount and share emotional experiences with others — and it was powerfully cathartic. Psychologist Bernard Rimé found that 80-95% of emotional episodes are shared and that we typically socially share negative emotions after a tragic event in order to understand, to vent, to bond, to seek meaning, or to combat feelings of loneliness. 

Sociologist Émile Durkheim explains that it is through sharing that we achieve a reciprocal stimulation of emotions which leads to the strengthening of beliefs, a renewal of trust, strength, and self-confidence, and even increased social integration. It’s in sharing that we build a community of those experiencing the same trauma. Research shows that sharing not just the facts of our experiences, but our feelings about them, improves recovery after traumatic events. A 1986 study assigned participants to one of four groups, including a “trauma-combo group,” in which participants wrote about not just the facts of their trauma but the emotions surrounding them. Those in the trauma-combo group showed the most emotional healing but also the greatest objective health improvements, including reduction in illness-related doctor’s visits. 

Now that we’ve gained some distance from the intensity of the Covid crisis, I am realizing just how radically different our collective response was compared with what I remember about 9/11. 

As a traumatic event, shouldn’t we have expected a similar pattern of sharing? Where was the deluge of conversations, the emotional meltdowns, the personal stories? Where were all the public hugs and tears? 

None of this happened during Covid. We shared the facts but not the experiences. We focused on the statistics, not the stories. There was no Covid “trauma-combo group,” no sharing of what it felt like to be terrified of the virus or the government response to it, no coming together over the grief of loved ones dying alone, no sorrow over what it was like to be hated by your fellow citizens or cast out of meaningful social interactions. 

In comparison to 9/11, our natural trauma response to Covid was stunted by our deep culture of silence, censorship, and cancellation. The sharing happened in small, isolated groups, and the media coverage was fringe and outlying. But the acknowledged, shared experiences of people living through a global, traumatic event were absent… or silenced.

The fact that we didn’t do the emotional work needed for trauma recovery in the natural course of things means we are still saddled with pent-up, tragic emotions. And they aren’t likely to dissolve by the mere passage of time. The work will still need to be done, whether it is by us now, or by our children or grandchildren at some point in the future. 

So, what do we need to do now? We need families and friends to talk about how the last three years changed them. We need sisters to share their pain and uncertainties. We need Substacks and op-eds and feature articles on the totality of the costs — physical, emotional, economic, and existential — of the pandemic and the pandemic response. We need testimonies and interviews and books of poetry and history to flood the Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists. We need all of this to help us make sense of what happened to us. Stories are a balm to our wounds. We need them for our recovery as much as to create an accurate historical record. And until we have them, our emotions will fester a little more each day, with us floating in a kind of Covid purgatory.

Last Thoughts

It’s hard to imagine that we are a civilization on the verge of collapse and perhaps even harder still to imagine that we could be the cause of our own destruction. But it’s useful to remember that civilizations are not as invincible as we might think. According to British scholar Sir John Bagot Glubb, the average lifespan of civilizations is a mere 336 years. By this measure, we have done quite well, our civilization — with roots in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire — having lasted much longer than most. It’s a sobering fact that every civilization but our own has collapsed. And, for better or for worse, it was the destruction of every prior civilization that allowed for the creation of our own. 

But what perplexes me so much about our potential collapse is that we seem to have all the resources to resist it. We have a robust written historical record to show us how perverted leaders, greed, civil war, and the loss of culture and communication destroy us. We are more literate (in a sense) and more technologically advanced than ever, which should have insulated us from some of the common causes of destruction: disease, economic collapse, and global war. You would think that the lessons of history, alone, would have helped us to swerve to avoid our destruction. And yet here we are.

All these resources, yes, but we have little character, little practical wisdom with which to manage them. In the end, we are here because of a tragic flaw that makes us believe in the possibility of living perfectly rather than living well, all the while making us blind to the paradox at the heart of the idea.

Is there an author to our Covid experience, and to our more general destruction? I don’t know and I don’t think it ultimately matters. 

What matters is how we, as individuals, respond. What matters is how much attention we give ourselves and others, whether we ask ourselves the hard questions and root out the character flaws lurking in the darkest corners of our souls. What matters is not that we are characters but that we have characters, that we are able to accept responsibility for lives and the choices we make.

It’s interesting to me that, even amidst the ‘We-don’t-need-history’ arrogance of the 21st century, the tragic stories of Shakespeare and of Ancient Greece have managed to survive. That, in itself, should give us reason to pause and pay attention. I wonder, why have their themes stood the test of time? Why do they resonate so profoundly? And, most importantly, what are we attempting to teach ourselves through the telling and retelling? 

Tragedies are not just stories that help us to make sense of the chaos of the world around us; they are also warnings for the future generations. They are scratchings on the walls of the caves and letters from the past to teach us how to avoid future self-destruction.  

Unfortunately, history shows us that we aren’t very good at heeding these warnings. It’s as though our tragic flaw is standing in the way of seeing the truth about ourselves. We are still lurking in the shadow of Oedipus. And, like Oedipus, it’s the things we do to try to avoid our destruction that fate us to play it out. Perhaps we think we are special, or somehow immune. Perhaps we believe we have evolved past the tragic flaws of our ancestors; but we don’t see that we are just as weak and willfully blind. Like Oedipus, we are refusing to see and will one day no longer be able to look at ourselves.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that working our tragic flaw out of ourselves will be easy or that it will make all of our troubles dissolve in a moment. There’s a reason why so many choose willful blindness; it’s not sticky. You can go through your day, even a whole life, without raising eyebrows or ringing any socially alarming bells. But confronting our mistakes and working through them is the only possible way forward.

Our lives are framed largely by the stories we tell ourselves. And perfectionism is the story we are currently telling. But it’s a dangerous and destructive story because it creates “blind spots” that make us unable to see the harm we do. If it’s destroying us, then shouldn’t we try to write a different story?

A story in which our lives are messy, the future uncertain, and our lives finite. 

A story in which we are imperfect beings who listen to each others’ stories and offer grace for each other’s imperfections. 

A story we need to learn to write with new characters we need to learn to be. 

A story in which the things that destroy us in one moment can teach and heal us in the next. 

In every tragedy, just before climax, there is an eerie calm. The calm of Fall 2023 is deafening. People aren’t speaking. Stories aren’t being shared. Self-adulation and revisionism abound. 

I can’t help but wonder, are we experiencing the “falling action” after the climax of our story, or is it still to come? How would we know? Does the tragic hero ever know? The falling action in a play usually includes the character’s reaction to the climax, how he copes with the obstacles that brought him to that point, and how he plans to carry on. 

How do we plan to carry on? Will we look our mistakes in the face or will we continue to feed the beast that is our obsession with perfectionism? Will we start telling our stories? Will we listen to the stories of others? And, maybe most importantly, will future generations heed our warnings?

Time will tell us. Or, as the tragic playwright Euripides advised, “Time will explain it all.”

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