Tragedy and Dukkha (The Wild One: Part One)

See god? That is the easiest thing in the world.  He always appears to me in the bottom of the tenth glass of beer….

Franz Bibfeldt, German theologian, On the Reality of Visions.

Like many a Friday night, this blog post is destined to begin with alcohol and end with god.*  It begins with alcohol because of Thomas Helm.  Over 30 years ago, I had the good fortune to take a few university courses with Helm, who was at that time a professor of Comparative Religious Studies.  There were three generations of professor in Helm’s family.  Both his father and grandfather had been professors, and he himself was in some ways decidedly Old School.

One of those ways was his scrupulous refusal to divulge his personal beliefs.  That included his personal religious beliefs.  He so thoroughly succeeded  in keeping those views to himself that his reserve itself became a topic.  One of my more religious classmates adamantly insisted, “Even God Himself doesn’t know whether Helm approves of Him.”  The strain became too much for a second student.  I was in class the day he abruptly rose from his desk and loudly demanded that Helm declare on the spot whether or not he “believed in a Supreme Being”.

The student — who was captain of the football team, president of a campus Christian organization, born-again, and obviously under the impression that “comparative religious studies” was a fancy term for a university-sponsored Sunday School class — was red in the face, and his voice bordered on anger.  Unintimidated, Professor Helm calmly indulged his habit of taking a moment to think before responding: “I will not answer your question.  But I will address it at the end of class on Friday.”

On Friday, Professor Helm set aside the last 15 minutes of class to address, but not to answer, the student’s question.

Today — over 30 years later — I still recall some of that address.  Professor Helm strategically redefined the essential question as a matter of intellectual values.  Intellectual growth and fulfillment demand that we value intellectual honesty, intellectual courage, and intellectual integrity.  After expanding on his theme for a few minutes, Professor Helm closed by stating that learning was at times accompanied by emotional discomfort, which he called “growing pains”.   “We might feel uncomfortable when our most cherished beliefs are challenged”, Professor Helm said, “but if we chose to avoid emotional pain by running away from those challenges to our beliefs, we will never reach our fullest intellectual potential.”

Naturally, Professor Helm’s remarks failed to satisfy the student,  who quickly dropped the course.  Hence, the good student missed out on the beer.


“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

William Butler Yeats

Although Professor Helm was Old School, he was not so Old School he refused to experiment with “advanced pedagogical techniques”, and so he occasionally invited those of us who were interested to attend him for after class drinks. One afternoon we were gathered at a bar, when I said something, which I’ve forgotten now, that another student picked up on to demand precisely what kind of Christian I was.  I was on the verge of informing him I would not answer his question, but that I would address it come Friday, when Professor Helm offered, “I suspect Paul is pre-Christian.  He seems to have the worldview of an ancient Greek”.

Sometimes a more experienced person sees in you things you yourself will not recognize for years.  At the time, Professor Helm’s comment puzzled me because I didn’t know myself that well.  But I believe I see in hindsight what he was getting at.  Some of the Greeks had a tragic view of human life and nature.  Scholars disagree over precisely what that view involved, but many of them discuss it in terms of hamartiaHamartia is related to hamartanein, which is a word that means, “missing the mark” — as when an arrow falls short of its target.

There is no scholarly consensus about the meaning of hamartia, but I myself have never once stopped short — after I’ve gotten three or four beers in me — of declaring the word without doubt means “an error of action or judgment that is committed in ignorance of its true consequences and which inevitably results in one’s self-defeat”.  I am somewhat embarrassed to say I frequently follow up by loudly announcing my intention to arm-wrestle the fool who disagrees with me.

I think humans are prone to hamartia.  Regardless of our intentions — which may range from good to evil — we defeat ourselves while expecting anything but self-defeat.  There seems to be something about our species that makes the problem intractable, frequent, and perhaps frequently inevitable. If all that is along the lines of holding a tragic worldview of human life and nature, then I am guilty of to some extent doing so.  To some extent — for I do have a few bug-tussles with the view.

Human tragedies happen on both the micro level of the individual and the macro level of society as a whole — and on every level in between.  Some say half the people in the world depend for their food on the use of synthetic nitrogen to fertilize crops.  Yet, the nitrates in fertilizer run off in the surface water, or leech into the groundwater, eventually finding their way into the human water supply.  A pregnant woman, drinking the local nitrate rich water, might thus find herself unintentionally condemning her newborn to death.  Nitrates from fertilizers also find their way into lakes, where they do considerable damage to some species, sometimes creating dead zones, and into the oceans, where they create coastal dead zones.  To add to it, it is highly problematic whether the earth itself has the resources to long support the additional humans fed by nitrogen fertilizers.  And if the earth cannot support us, then the human population will contract mainly through starvation and wars.

I will wager no human ever said one day, “Behold! Let us go forth to create synthetic nitrogen fertilizers so that we may feed half the world at the cost of killing many newborns, devastating the living things in lakes and coastal oceans, and creating a population explosion that will eventually suck dry the earth’s remaining resources — among other harms pleasantly numerous to mention.”  The intentions of the folks who invented synthetic nitrogen fertilizers were no doubt much better than that.  One might even imagine that some of the researchers were enthusiastic to be solving the world’s hunger problem.  Yet, today, they illustrate how humanity is self-defeating.  You needn’t look too long: Life is full of genuine tragedies.

Nor need you look too far from home.  Most human tragedies go unremarked and unknown by the world at large.  In everyone of our lives, tragedy has hit home — time after time.  We commit errors that turn out to be hamartia and end defeating ourselves while expecting anything but self-defeat.  One has only to consider how most of us — perhaps all of us at one time or another — have brought about our own or someone else’s suffering through our mismanagement of  love, sex, affection, or romance.  Yet, do any of us ever set out thinking, “Let me go forth to screw up love?”:

Is love desire? Don’t say no. For most of us it is – desire with pleasure, the pleasure that is derived through the senses, through sexual attachment and fulfillment. I am not against sex, but see what is involved in it. What sex gives you momentarily is the total abandonment of yourself, then you are back again with your turmoil, so you want a repetition over and over again of that state in which there is no worry, no problem, no self. You say you love your wife. In that love is involved sexual pleasure, the pleasure of having someone in the house to look after your children, to cook. You depend on her; she has given you her body, her emotions, her encouragement, a certain feeling of security and well-being. Then she turns away from you; she gets bored or goes off with someone else, and your whole emotional balance is destroyed, and this disturbance, which you don’t like, is called jealousy. There is pain in it, anxiety, hate and violence. So what you are really saying is, `As long as you belong to me I love you but the moment you don’t I begin to hate you. As long as I can rely on you to satisfy my demands, sexual and otherwise, I love you, but the moment you cease to supply what I want I don’t like you.’ So there is antagonism between you, there is separation, and when you feel separate from another there is no love.

Wherever we look in this world, humans are playing out their tragedies.  One could go on and on cataloging them all until the keg runs dry.  Our tragedies are as numerous as the complaints of humanity raised to ten orders of magnitude and then squared, which is a number possibly surpassed only by the times I have claimed for myself improbable excellence in bed.  If you wish, you may say the number of tragedies is significantly less, but then prepare yourself to arm-wrestle.

If human nature and life genuinely do conspire to produce tragedies.  And if those tragedies are either inevitable or all but inevitable, then tragedy holds for us a profound significance.  For if life is all but inevitably full of tragedies both great and small, then intentions and expectations are to some significant extent unreliable guides to how some course we embark upon turns out.  Not only is it characteristic of life that “Stuff Happens”, but it is also at least equally characteristic of life that we ourselves unintentionally make “Stuff Happen”.  Consequently, our attempts to correct one tragedy may bring about another.  In other words, tragedies can, and sometimes do,  snowball — in which cases, the more we try to make things right, the worse things become.

Essentially, the tragic worldview — as I have interpreted it here — is the view that life and human nature conspire to make us an unintentionally self-defeating species.  And they do so with a frequency that borders on inevitability.  Many people, including myself, have a quarrel with the notion of  “inevitability”.  We think, “Yes, tragedies happen, but they are not inevitable.”  Yet, perhaps, before we become too sure that tragedies are not inevitable, we should go restore the world’s coastal dead zones to life without compounding the problem — or we should solve the population bomb in a way that does not leave humanity the worse off.

Of one thing we may be certain: Whether or not tragedies are inevitable, they are ubiquitous.


“It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Let’s turn now to a second worldview, which I will call samsaraSamsara is a word meaning “continuous flow”, and I must warn you that my interpretation of it here might be relatively unique.   The word is used in several religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and it typically means the continuous cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.  However, my usage of the word follows that of a certain friend’s usage.  While I am pretty sure he’s not alone in using the word to denote a cycle or continuous flow between the apparent contradictions of pleasure and suffering, his usage does not appear to be the most popular one.

Now, by “suffering”, I mean dukkha.  And, while “suffering” is among its many meanings today, I prefer to begin our discussion by returning to its original meanings.  There are three that I know of:

  • First, the word was once used to denote a lose fit between a chariot wheel and its axle, such that the wheel wobbled.
  • Second, the word was once used to denote a poor fit between a potter’s wheel and its stand, such that the wheel screeched when turned.
  • Last, the term was used to denote a dislocated shoulder or hip.

The common meaning to all three definitions is something like “out-of-jointness” or “dislocation”.   Now, so far as I know, dukkha no longer means out-of-jointness or dislocation.  However, if we approach the word without the needless hesitations of a trembling hand approaching a hungry thigh on prom night, we might find a hint or two of its original meanings in its contemporary meanings.  One of its contemporary meanings is emotional or psychological clinging, as when one won’t give up nursing a grudge or yearning for a lost love.  It might be pointed out that in such cases there is a dislocation between between one’s feelings and one’s current situation.  Our lover is gone.  She is not coming back.  But we still long for her.

Dukkha can be translated in many ways, “…including suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration.”  The student I mentioned earlier who ended up dropping out of Professor Helm’s course apparently felt some kind of dukkha when it became evident to him that Professor Helm was not headed down the road to affirming the student’s religious beliefs.

Although the good student did not stick around long enough to tap into Professor’s Helm’s beer bash, had he gotten enough beer in him, it seems possible his feelings of dukkha might have been converted into feelings of sukhaSukha is a word very closely related to dukkha, both etymologically, and in the sense the words are often thought of as opposites. Sukha can have such meanings as happiness, pleasure — or even bliss.  But they sometimes, for at least some folks such as my friend, carry a slightly richer meaning.

That richer meaning comes about when dukkha and sukha are seen as continuously cycling between each other. Things are sukha today, dukkha tomorrow, before turning sukha again.   When seen that way, they might call to mind the I Ching’s notion that when things get better they will get worse, and when they get worse, they will get better.  Or they might even call to mind the entire notion of yin and yang — of which only a part is the suggestion that when things get better, they will get worse, and when things get worse, they will get better.

“Around and around we go”.  Unlike the worldview of tragedy, the worldview of samsara — as I’ve represented it here — does not posit ultimate self-defeat. Yet, like tragedy, it does not posit any real progress, either.   “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

While people have created many elaborate worldviews, I will now turn to the last great worldview that I wish to mention, hedonism.


“We all try to escape pain and death, while we seek what is pleasant.”

The wise Albert Einstein

“Then please explain to me why I married my second wife.”

— The baffled Paul Sunstone

In a nutshell, hedonism is the notion that pleasure is the either the only intrinsic good, or at least the dominant good, and the goal in life is to maximize net pleasure.  Net pleasure being pleasure minus pain or suffering.

Hedonism is sometimes represented as an unsophisticated worldview in which all pleasures are considered equal.  That would absurdly place, say, the trivial pleasure one might take in swilling a mass-brewed watery pilsner on the same level with the ecstasy of rolling around in one’s mouth a finely crafted microbrewed stout.  Or even more absurdly, it would place reading the local paper’s editorial pages on the very same level as lining one’s big cage with them.  Yet, despite the absurdity of it,  I suppose there could be a few hedonists of whom such ridiculous valuations are characteristic.  I do not suppose, however, that there are many.  Especially many above the age of reason, which for an American, is somewhere around the age of 40.

It has also been said at times that some religions might be considered forms of hedonism in that they seem to very greatly rely for their appeal on the claim they provide an escape from the pains of hell into the pleasures of heaven.  But, so far as I know, that is not broadly true of any religion.  It might, however, be true enough of certain Fundamentalist movements within one or another religion.   At least, there are Fundamentalist movements that appear to recruit, inspire, and maintain their membership by placing a singular emphasis on avoiding hell and gaining heaven.

Last, consumerism is sometimes said to be a form of hedonism.  And I think that can be true for any number of people.  For many of us, consumption brings pleasure.  But perhaps we should be careful to mention that consumption can also go way beyond mere pleasure seeking.  It can become a means to self-identity, as when we identify ourselves with the kind and quantity of our possessions, in much the same way we might identify ourselves with our role as a husband or wife.

Now both, tragedy and samsara do not possess much in the way of a notion of progress — of things permanently improving or progressing.  And while not all forms of hedonism would either, there appears to me nothing intrinsic to hedonism itself that would prevent at least some forms of it to assert that life can get significantly better and better.

I have now completed my exhaustive study of the world’s great worldviews.  OK, it wasn’t exhaustive.  I left out a whole lot of worldviews.  And views within worldviews.  And all sorts of related stuff.  Even so, I think you should now have a sense — if you did not already — of how important the issue of suffering is to at least three of the world’s historically important worldviews.  Next, I wish to look at something that is not properly a worldview, but which is still a response to suffering.


“Mexico is a country of a modest, very fucked class, which will never stop being fucked. Television has the obligation to bring diversion to these people and remove them from their sad reality and difficult future.”

Emilio Azcarraga

Regardless of how we are apt to characterize life — whether as tragedy, samsara, or in some other way — it is just a fact that most of us devote considerable time and effort to avoiding it.

Or at least, to avoiding part of it.  Most of us are not opposed to all of life.  We like the beauty we see, the love we feel, the pleasures we take, and so forth.  We affirm those aspects of life.  The rest of life we at most tolerate.  We embrace the beauty of life, but not its ugliness.  We embrace pleasure, but not suffering.  We seek out the good, and try to escape the bad.   And because the bad comes anyway, we create and pursue all sorts of escapes from life — or at least, escapes from a portion of life.

We escape into drugs or into politics.  We escape into sex or into marriage.  We escape into work or into entertainment.  We escape into ideologies, intellectual pursuits, philosophies and religions.  We escape into judgmentalism. We escape into our children or grandchildren.  We escape into shopping.  We escape into organizations, cults, and groups.  We escape into sports. We escape into daydreaming.  We escape into hobbies.

Perhaps oddly enough, escapism does not necessarily involve an escape into pleasure.  The ultimate example of an unpleasant escape is suicide.  But regardless whether people attempt to escape their lives in pleasant or unpleasant ways, they almost invariably seem to be attempting to escape from dukkha.

It is clear that we are a species able to turn most anything in its world into a way of avoiding or escaping from its life in its completeness.  And most of us will seldom, if ever, consider our escapism to be a real problem.  We might decide that some escapes are bad for us, but we will most likely still embrace other escapes.  And when our current forms of escape do not work for us, we will simply redouble our efforts to make them work, or we will find new forms of escape.  In any case, most of us will never entirely cease trying to escape from a part of our lives.  Nor will we ever see a reason to cease.  And in mild cases of escapism, there well might not be a good reason to avoid escapism.  But perhaps those mild cases should not be called genuine escapism.

I think it’s best that we define escapism in somewhat narrower terms to denote only those attempts to avoid, deny, or distract from dukkha that prove significantly self-defeating, harmful to ourselves or others, or that otherwise render us unable to achieve our objectives.  And, when defined that way, perhaps Alan Saporta was wise to suggest, “The best way to escape from a problem is to solve it.”  For, we should recognize that our efforts to escape from the reality of our lives are often enough tragic.  That is, they might begin with the best intentions of alleviating our own or another’s suffering, but they too frequently create at least as many problems as they solve.  The obvious example is the use of drugs to escape from reality.  But what about the use of, say, religion to do the same? One could spend days cataloging the human suffering caused by humans attempting to escape from human suffering.


“On the whole, I am on the side of the unregenerate who affirms the worth of life as an end in itself, as against the saints who deny it.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

To sum up so far: I have looked at three great worldviews.  All three have in common that — to one extent or another — they seem to revolve around the issue of suffering.  Or, to use a more comprehensive term than suffering, the issue of dukkha.  Naturally, I have left out more ways of viewing the issue of dukkha than I have included.  I have, however, mentioned one way of responding to dukkha that is not an actual worldview, but more along the lines of a defense mechanism.  And I have suggested that escapism might — just might — be the single most common means of responding to dukkha, even if it is frequently mixed in with other ways of responding to dukkha.   Last, I have also suggested that escapism can create more problems than it solves, and that those problems can be quite serious in how they affect oneself and others.

That  now brings me — as  inevitability as a pair of panties hitting the floor on prom night — to the question of whether there is any sustainable response to our lives besides escapism?

Of course, the opposite of trying to escape from or deny a part of life would be to completely and unconditionally affirm all of life — not just the good parts of life, but all of life.  Not just to affirm the sukha of life, but the dukkha, too.  Not just to affirm the summer days when your tomatoes hang firm and plump on their vines, but to affirm even those moments when you have accidentally spilled your last cold beer of the evening.  Not just to intellectually concede that life is full of poo at times, but to affirm — perhaps even passionately affirm — the poo of life.

Is it really possible to affirm all of life when life brings us so much in the way of, “ suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration“?  If so — if we really can affirm all of life — will it lead to our well-being and flourishing?  Will it leave us happy?  Is it worth it?

Or is there perhaps a hidden downside to affirming all of life?  Will affirming life, much like this post author’s experimental, but once eagerly anticipated, Deep Fried Macaroni and Cheese Entree, prove in the end to have been an unforeseen — albeit understandably unforeseen — recipe for near death and disaster?

In the very best traditions of escapism, I will at first attempt to avoid answering those questions.  Instead, I will focus for a bit on the origins of god and religion.  Yet, the detour into origins will prove no more permanent than the vivid, but brief, hallucinations I think most of us reasonably expect to experience now and then when eating our own experimental cookery.  So, in the end, I will return like a bad virus to the topic of affirming life.  Then, in the final post in this series, I will attempt to expand further on the topics of god and religion in many perhaps surprising ways.

I will now wager that long term readers of this blog doubtlessly look forward to a promising journey filled with insight and excitement might expect me to screw up what I intend to accomplish.  Only time will tell whether their tragic, and I believe totally groundless, pessimism will just this once be triumphantly shoved aside in much the same way a juggernaut of a sunbeam will surely someday burst forth to triumphantly shove aside every pessimistic rain cloud of despair.  Just this once, it would be nice if that could happen.   Really nice.


*This post is a rewrite of an earlier post.  It has been updated, reshaped, and extensively revised.  Consequently, the earlier post has been withdrawn, stomped on, torn to pixels, and its pixels eaten by a screaming sky weasel.  Trust me, it has.


10 thoughts on “Tragedy and Dukkha (The Wild One: Part One)

  1. Pingback: Why Bother With God? The Domestic God vs The Wild God - Christian Forums

  2. Of course, the opposite of trying to escape from or deny a part of life would be to completely and unconditionally affirm all of life — not just the good parts of life, but all of life. Not just to affirm the sukha of life, but the dukkha, too.

    Actually, there is a philosophy that embraces that: Nichiren Daishonen’s Buddhism. I have been following that philosophy for twenty-five years and find it most rewarding. Not easy, but rewarding.


  3. One could spend days cataloging the human suffering caused by humans attempting to escape from human suffering.

    This seems to be another manifestation of Jamie Zawinski’s sage maxim: “The universe tends toward maximum irony. Don’t push it.”

    As for affirming all of life, do you think that leaves any room for feeling motivated to alleviate dukkha, where feasible?

  4. “As for affirming all of life, do you think that leaves any room for feeling motivated to alleviate dukkha, where feasible?”

    I think that’s a genuine concern. Maybe even an urgent concern in some parts of the world. Gita Mehta, in her wonderful little book, Karma Cola, somewhere mentions the Indian tendency to accept things as they are, without trying to change them. I’ve heard the same complaint from other sources. And by all accounts, it is crippling. In the end it can even come down to living in your own shit because you feel it will change nothing in the cosmic scheme of things to build a sewer.

    That’s one vital reason I’m a bit more sympathetic to the ancient Greek outlook than to the Indian. Ultimately, however, I think Nietzsche was right — we all of us need more than one way of looking at things. We all need to become what Nietzsche called, Cosmic Dancers — people who dance between dozens or even a hundred ways of viewing things.

    • The hard part is to avoid becoming as indecisive as Hamlet. So, you have to keep in mind that when studying the fire, seek as many views of it as possible, but when the moment comes to fight the fire, you must commit yourself to acting on the best view you have available at the time.

  5. Pingback: A Recap of the Wild One Series « Café Philos: an internet café

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