Life will get you. Just a matter of timing. A child chases a ball across the road. Somebody should have taught him about oncoming traffic. Somebody should have taught him there aren’t always second chances. They didn’t and splat.
A difference exists between what happens everyday to somebody else and the personal. Poor luck, sad, heart rending don’t quite do it. It’s no longer the indifferent universe when it happens to us. Pain should have enduring meaning whether it does or not. A half-literate journalist forced to do the story of the dead child settles on calling the commonplace the tragic. The usage sticks, slides into the vernacular and brings comfort.
Language changes. A word means what people say it means. Most likely the way we are going to go is ignominious, but once in a while a man defies the way of things and lives and dies in a way that stands out from the common order. When we lose the old fashioned technical dramatic definition of the tragic we sink further into this leveling of experience.
It’s a lost cause. Would you like to be the one who explained to a parent whose child died, that no, the child’s death did not rise to the tragic? Shakespearean scholars groan when they hear of a high school teacher asking their students to look for and isolate the tragic flaw in Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Such a view of the plays is too limiting.
Most of us are bound to the sticking earth. We look to the heavens but never soar. Our time will come, go, and end, unremarked, unremembered. We live and act on a tiny stage.
Elevating what we are by elevating our language, calling the usual, the tragic, changes nothing. A man, if he has the chance to become more than his destiny seems to give him, does so through the inspiration of example. To want too little is to live too little.
If a person lives large enough, even the failures, even Macbeth’s “o’er vaulting ambition” takes us out of the world of the ordinary into an awareness of grand spectacle.
I live in a harsh outdoor world where close calls with death are daily occurrences. If somebody asked me in the evening how my day went, I might forget how close I came to dying that morning when I fell out of a tree with a running chainsaw. I am one more farmer. Every year in my home county one of us goes to that great feedlot in the sky when he makes a mistake with a tractor on a steep hillside. I don’t bother with the seatbelt. Just now it would be such an inconvenience to write a check for a new John Deere that if I turned one over I might as well go to the bone yard with the tractor.
Stupidity, inattention will get you, but death too often comes from simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can’t anticipate the next tree crashing, or the notional behavior of a frightened cow. A recent winter day found me beating my way through the ice to the center of the river with a tiny twelve-foot canoe to pick up a drake mallard I had killed. In sight of a well-traveled highway, if I leaned too far and the canoe went over, the current would pull me under the ice with no way out.
Living in air-conditioned and heated environments give us the illusion of insulation. We live in the expectation of safety until we believe it’s some kind of natural right.
Sometimes I don’t sell the old cows. Twenty years of calving, twenty years of loyalty, seem to call for the honor of dying in the pasture they were born to. It’s hard when one goes down and won’t be getting up. I give them what I’d like to get but won’t, a bullet to the brain. I’d repeated this scene too much. The sights didn’t waver through tears that weren’t there. She’d gone to the river for a drink and sat down that one final time. You always know. I dropped the hammer on the old ’86 40-82. She jerked that characteristic jerk.
Behind me, coming around the bend, the little girl screamed. She was in the bow of, I supposed, her father’s canoe. How dare they think they have the right to retain so much sensitivity? I expected the father to pull his canoe over onto my land and express his anger at my act. He didn’t. He paddled to the other side of the river, the outward appearance of as much calm as possible.
Sometimes I can forget what I can seem like to outsiders. I wouldn’t have killed the cow in front of the little girl, if they had been in sight when I looked over my shoulder before I pulled the trigger, but in the moment I didn’t care.
Most of us aren’t given to the grand stages. We dream of Scipio and Alexander and hear Plutarch’s advice to young men, but our life is bland. It will end when we can no longer demand the energy to get up and move, that or poor luck. But the dream that we can grasp for something beyond ourselves can still live. When we go boldly and fail, that’s the tragedy, a failure, yes, but we all fail in the end. It’s just that some failures mark the world in a way most won’t.
Maybe when we dilute our words, we dilute our lives, and we seep downward into banality that speaks to our loss of dreams. Maybe the tragic speaks to an ideal that is no longer lived and no longer needed.
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