“No Triumph, No Tragedy” is the name of a program on BBC Radio 4 where a well-known blind radio presenter, Peter White, interviews various celebrities who have also had to deal with physical challenges. The program is enthralling–Peter White is an excellent interviewer and his subjects are equally fascinating. So why did that title offend me so much when I first heard it? What on earth could he mean, I thought, “No Triumph, No Tragedy”?
I’ve been dealing with a health challenge for 13 years now that brought my career as a concert pianist to an abrupt halt, and I’ve taken it for granted so far that I’m moving from tragedy to triumph. It’s my raison d’être, you could say. What on earth would my life’s journey be about, if not moving from tragedy to triumph? All the personal development work I’ve done has emphasized that trajectory. The people I’ve met, the courses I’ve taken, have focused on turning your life around, or moving towards some idealized vision. And the alternative is too scary and sad to contemplate.
Or is it? I’ve already been learning that those things that have happened to me were not necessarily tragedies. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a tragedy as “an unhappy or fatal event, a dreadful calamity or disaster… especially a sorrowful end…”. But who is to decide whether an event is unhappy? Who is to decide if an end is sorrowful? Surely only the protagonist of the story can decide what their story is.
For example, the death of our baby son, James, led to Robert re-engaging with poetry seriously, which brings great joy and fulfillment to his life. I’m not sure what James’s death brought me. That’s where I get stuck. It brought me greater strength and endurance to deal with pain (my own and others’). That doesn’t sound very inspiring. But maybe it is. It has also brought me great isolation, as I have had difficulty being around others with children, or even telling others (with or without children) what happened to me. Yet isolation has brought with it introspection, a chance to face my own wounds, demons, inadequacies.
Maybe some days, triumph is just getting out of bed in the morning.
Sometimes I don’t believe my own story. Sometimes I think that surely I must be well–I look well–and I will wake up tomorrow morning back to my old self. The idea of tragedy frightens me because of its “sorrowful end”. Do I want to turn my tragedy into a triumph because I’m afraid of the alternative?
What really constitutes a tragedy? Perhaps it is failing to gain any understanding or find any meaning in difficult circumstances. So I may be the only one who can tell if my life is a tragedy. It’s not possible to tell from the outside.
And what constitutes a triumph? The earliest definition reads as follows: “The entrance of the victorious commander with his army and spoils in solemn procession into Rome”. Also, “a signal success or achievement, pomp, splendor, glory, magnificence.” That sounds like a lot of pressure to me. What I notice about these definitions of triumph is that they are about a signal success, a public festivity. Yet I realize that, just as tragedy cannot be inferred from outside, neither can triumph. And just as only the individual can know if their life is a tragedy, perhaps only they can decide, equally, if their life has been a triumph.
So has my life been a triumph? One voice says, “Yes, it’s all about inner victories, and you have had many.” Another voice says, “No, what do you really have to show for your life?” And a third says, “Don’t put that kind of pressure on me for the benefit of others.”
That last voice is really the key. How much of my life is a struggle simply because I’m trying to make it pleasing to others? I don’t think I realized that I needed to ask that question until this very minute. And the answer that comes is: a great deal. I think I’ve been attempting to prove something to myself and to others, and it’s exhausting. What if I could be more inner-directed and see what happens?
I’m afraid I wouldn’t get anything done. Well, if all that counts is what’s happening inside, maybe that doesn’t matter. A sense of relief comes over me. And then nervousness–wouldn’t I just be more isolated?
It’s about acceptance. What if I could accept my circumstances fully? Maybe the isolation comes from the disconnect between how I feel, and what I am willing to show or let others see. If I could fully accept myself, I wouldn’t mind what others see.
I forgive myself for judging myself as tragic. I forgive myself for judging that my life is not a triumph. How can I possibly know what it is? Can’t I just let it be?