emrys_nc (emrys_nc) wrote in powerofmyth,

Contingency, Tragedy, and Faith

It’s the anniversary of 9/11 – the most significant U.S. national tragedy to happen in my lifetime -- and I’m thinking about why tragic things happen. Perhaps the one thing that is most destructive to the human psyche is the experience of sheer contingency. “Contingency” in the ontological sense – as in, the opposite of necessity -- what’s chancy, random, meaningless, w/o rhyme or reason… For thousands of years we’ve had myth, religion, philosophy and science largely for the purpose of putting a face on contingency.

When bad things happen we ask why. When our lives aren’t going well we ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or, “Why is everything going well for him and not for me? Why is he more deserving of happiness than I am?”

Recently my wife and I watched an excellent movie, Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, which is all about fate vs. chance vs. personal responsibility vs. blind luck. There is a golden moment in that movie where a character says, “Faith is the antithesis of proof,” and the most bitter, cynical character in the film replies, “Yeah… but still… you got’ta have faith in something!”

In a sense, I guess faith and proof are the two ways we put a face on contingency.

Whatever is the particular “something” you have faith in, the various myths of the world all essentially teach the same answer to the age-old question, “Why does bad shit happen?” In The Fifth Mountain, Paulo Coelho explains it well:
• There are things that are brought into our lives to lead us back to the true path of our Personal Legend.
• Some things come along to teach us.
• Other things arise so we can apply all that we have learned. (i.e. to test us)

In the structure of Joe Campbell’s Hero Quest, Coelho’s first form of tragedy corresponds to the “Call to Adventure.” The second type is what we encounter while on the “Road of Trials.” The third form is what Campbell called “the Ordeal.”

The second type (the Road of Trials) are often some of the hardest to take. In The Fifth Mountain the Prophet Elijah asks, “Why does He who made the world prefer to use tragedy to write the book of fate?”

An angel answers, “There is no tragedy, only the unavoidable. Everything hath a reason for being; thou neediest only distinguish what is temporary from what is lasting.”

“What is temporary?” asked Elijah.

“The unavoidable.”

“What is lasting?”

“The lessons of the unavoidable.”

Later in that book, w/ regards to “the unavoidable,” a wise shepherd tells Elijah, “There are certain things that the gods oblige us to live though. There reason for this does not matter, and there is no action we can take to make them pass us by.”

When Elijah has his epiphany need the end of the novel, he realizes that: “Sometimes it was necessary to struggle w/ God. Every human being at some time had tragedy enter his life…. At that moment, God challenged one to confront Him and to answer His question: “Why dost thou cling to an existence so short and so filled w/ suffering? What is the meaning of thy struggle?”

(i.e. What do you have worth living for?)

“One who sought a meaning to existence, feeling God had been unjust, would challenge his own destiny…. It was this that He desired, that each person take into his hands the responsibility for his own life…. Tragedy was not punishment but challenge.

On the anniversary of 9/11, there is a final passage in The Fifth Mountain which seems very appropriate to me. Elijah says, “I don’t want to argue whether my God is stronger or more powerful; I would speak not of our differences but our similarities. Tragedy has united us.”
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