The Myth of Tragedy

by Dan on September 2, 2009

The news is still buzzing about Phillip Garrido.  A paroled convicted sex felon, Garrido somehow managed to not only kidnap an 11 year old girl, but keep her for eighteen years fathering two children with her.  To make matters worse, the local police was so inept that repeated calls about the children being held in tents in Garrido’s backyard didn’t prompt any real investigation.  Now the kidnapper is arrested and the three hostages are free.

The biggest question being asked right now is “How could this happen?”  We’re questioning our own childrens’ safety as well as whether the sex offender registration system really does anything.

My mind is on something else.

I’m wondering how Jaycee and her two daughters are going to be treated by the outside world.  Being held against your will and assaulted since childhood for 18 years definitely fit most people’s definitions of a “tragedy.”

However, I think the least helpful thing anyone can do for these people is give them sympathy.

While not minimizing the need to make sure this never happens again, this is best looked at as a “speed bump” in their lives.  Any therapist who encourages them to feel violated is being counter productive.  In fact, any therapist who could cry hearing their stories is unworthy to be handling the case.

The truth is that we create our own meaning for every event we experience, good or bad.  Nelson Mandela was unjustly imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa, and I don’t think anyone would call his life tragic.  He was offered an early release in return for making government-approved statements but he refused.  Once he was released in 1990, he became the nation’s first democratic president    Even if Mandela was never released, I think he would have found a way to make his life meaningful in prison.

If you walked up to Mandela after his release and said, “I’m so sorry you had to go through those tragic 27 years,” he would walk away.

Jaycee and her two daughters, however, have likely not developed the strength of mind that Nelson Mandela had before being imprisoned.  They will need social leaders who will see them as disoriented, but not damaged.  The meaning they are taught to place on this situation will decide how fruitful their lives will be in the future.

Time Periods of Injustice

To show how the meaning of an event can be so flexible, let’s look at how time periods can affect what we consider to be a tragedy.

Imagine a naïve young woman in ancient China, who has not been married off at this point.  She meets a palace guard that says if she sleeps with him, he will marry her to the Prince of the nation, and she will be in wealth forever.  She goes along with it, and after a laughing rejection from the guard, she realizes she’s given up her virginity for nothing.

1500 years ago, this could easily be considered a tragedy.  Not being a virgin, her family will be disgraced and she will now be untouchable for marriage by the upper classes.

If this happened today in Las Vegas, a common reaction would be, “Well, I guess you won’t fall for that one again.”

Now, contrary to the picture I just painted, the woman’s loss of virginity could be a tragedy in either time period, depending on the strength the “victim” has in her character.

If the Las Vegas girl has very religious parents and belongs to a judgmental community, she can go through her life in shame, if she chooses too.

Likewise, the girl in ancient China also has the choice to shrug it off and still believe in herself.  While communities and societies can be judgmental, there are always open-minded people within those communities who don’t go along with the trend.  If she keeps her head up, she will find a husband from any class who doesn’t mind her loss of “innocence.”

Question: “But that’s just the MINOR things like sex before marriage!  What about the real problems we’re dealing with, like child kidnapping?!”

Answer: This is also flexible in its interpretation.  If you read the early books of the Bible and look at other written histories of the time, it was not so uncommon for a losing nation after a war to have to sell their daughters into marriage or slavery.  Guess what, even the “good guys” of the Bible were doing this.  When you are raised knowing that being sold to another nation is a real possibility, you tend to not see tragedy in it when it happens.

The main point is that the meaning you have for your life stories are always your own choice.  Someone can make the choice for you, particularly if they’re older, an authority figure, or a “professional,” but it is always your option to accept or reject what people tell you.

I’m notoriously unsympathetic among my circle of friends, because I don’t see anyone’s problem as something permanent or horrible.  This can be uncomfortable for someone with low self-esteem or someone who seeks a victim mentality.

If someone calls me up and says they lost an arm in an accident, I might say, “Oh, sorry to hear that,” but they won’t hear any sympathy beyond that.  My next question would probably be how they’re adjusting to their new life.  I will assume they will be able to accomplish everything they want for the future.  I know I’m not doing any favors by encouraging a longer grief period than they need.

At the same time, I’m not going to tell them that this event was a “good” thing and give them my own misperception of their silver lining.  That is controlling and rude.  If they want to see a benefit in the situation, that’s their choice.  All I can do is treat their situation as a challenge they can easily overcome.

If someone tells me their relative or parent has cancer, I’m going to assume a full recovery.  Some people may resent this, but they’re generally people I’ve outgrown as friends anyway.

There’s enough negativity to deal with already, without adding more to the mix.  I say it’s best to avoid labeling any event in anyone’s life as a tragedy, especially your own.

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