“Tragic Sensibilities” (for fixing the divided States of America!)

“We’re living in a brutalizing time: Scenes of mass savagery pervade the media. Americans have become vicious toward one another amid our disagreements. Everywhere I go, people are coping with an avalanche of negative emotions: shock, pain, contempt, anger, anxiety, fear.”

Okay, the words above are those of columnist David Brooks, not mine. Although Brooks and I are as different as, well, “Black and White,” literally, we’re joined at the hip with our assessment of where we are today vis-à-vis our relationship with others. It’s just that he cut through the chaise and articulated it way better than I could.

What further sets us apart is his (and my lack of) knowledge of the striking narratives of Greek tragedies and, until I stumbled across his recent column, how they could serve us well as foundational for addressing the “Divided States of America,” and the foreshadows of more to come with wars, AK-47 toting domestic terrorists, and a rancorous national election on the horizon. 

He writes further….

“The first thing to say is that we in America are the lucky ones. We’re not crouching in a cellar waiting for the next bomb to drop. We’re not currently the targets of terrorists who massacre families in their homes. We should still start every day with gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. But we’re faced with a subtler set of challenges. How do you stay mentally healthy and spiritually whole in brutalizing times? How do you prevent yourself from becoming embittered, hate-filled, calloused over, suspicious and desensitized?”

The ancient Greeks, Brooks reminds us, knew about violent times. They lived with frequent wars, massacres and mass rape. In response, they adopted a “tragic sensibility” that begins with the awareness that the crust of civilization is thin, that breakdowns into barbarism are the historical norm. However, warns Brooks, “Don’t fool yourself into believing that you’re living in some modern age too enlightened for hatred to take over. Tragic sensibility prepares you for the rigors of life in concrete ways.” Here’s how. 

“First, it teaches a sense of humility. Humility is not thinking lowly of yourself; it’s an accurate perception of yourself. It is the ability to cast aside illusions and vanities and see life as it really is.”

“Second, tragic sensibility nurtures a prudent approach to life. It encourages people to focus on the downsides of their actions and work to head them off. In this way, people are taught resilience and anti-fragility — to be prepared for the pain that will inevitably come.”

“Third, tragic mentality encourages caution. The price we pay for our errors is higher than the benefits we gain from our successes. Be incremental, patient and steady.” 

“Fourth, tragic mentality teaches people to be suspicious of their own rage. “Rage” might feel luxurious because it makes you convinced of your own rightness, but ultimately it blinds you and turns you into a hate-filled monster. Rage hardens and corrodes the mind of its bearer.”

“Fifth, tragedies thrust the harsh realities of individual suffering in our faces, and in them we find our common humanity.” Drawing reference to Aeschylus’ “The Persians,” Brooks suggests that the play teaches us to be empathetic to all those who suffer, not just those on our own side, and that compassion is the noble flame that keeps humanity alive, even in times of war and barbarism. That compassion recognizes the infinite dignity of each human soul.

Brooks then turns us to a different mentality, one that emerged among the great Abrahamic faiths, and in their sacred city, Jerusalem. 

“This mentality celebrates an audacious act: the act of leading with love in harsh times. The essence of dehumanization, Brooks explains, “is not to see someone and render him inconsequential and invisible. The core counterattack against this kind of dehumanization is to offer others the gift of being seen. What sunlight is to the vampire, recognition is to the dehumanizers. This is the kind of social repair that can happen in our daily encounters, in the way we show up for others.”

During a Zoom call, Brooks was asked this fair question: Isn’t it dangerous to be vulnerable toward others when there is so much bitterness, betrayal and pain all around? 

His answer: “Yes, it is dangerous. But it is also dangerous to be hardened and calloused by hard times. The most practical thing you can do, even in hard times, is to lead with curiosity, lead with respect, work hard to understand the people you might be taught to detest.”

“That means seeing people with generous eyes, offering trust to others before they trust you. That means adopting a certain posture toward the world. If you look at others with the eyes of fear and judgment, you will find flaws and menace; but if you look out with a respectful attitude, you’ll often find imperfect people enmeshed in uncertainty, doing the best they can.”

Here’s a question I posed to my wise buddy Bernard while we discussed Brooks’ column after watching August Wilson’s play, “Two Trains Running”; Will casting this kind of attention as Brooks suggests change the people you are encountering?

“It depends on the person and situation,” said Bernard. 

Brooks answer? “Maybe; maybe not. But this is about who you are becoming in corrosive times. Are you becoming more humane or less? Are you a person who obsesses over how unfairly you are treated, or are you a person who is primarily concerned about how you see and treat others?”

Humm, “tragic sensitivities!” What are some of its applications in other challenges and divisions in our lives?  

Something to think about, huh?

Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.


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