The Tragedy of Existence (and a Glimpse of Hope)

by | Apr 26, 2023 | CC Favorite Essays, Essays

Life is hard.

The only conclusion I can come to is…It’s supposed to be.

Take a moment to look around and carefully observe; consider those you know battling some kind of adversity or tragedy. You know someone, perhaps more than one person struggling, don’t you? Not to mention the stories we hear from those in our social circles about the suffering of others. There’s no need to look beyond your current set of family, friends and acquaintances – just look there and you will come to the conclusion (had you not already) that life is full of pain and suffering.

I’m not referring to the adversity of life that comes from poor decision making – from the “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” crowd. I’m talking about the kind of adversity that finds you no matter how well or safely you live your life. It comes in the form of crisis: health, financial, relational and from violence and the terrible, unintended consequences of the choices we make in life. The “hardness” that life naturally forces upon us is ubiquitous and unavoidable despite our collective and individual best efforts, powerful medical interventions, rising standards of living, access to education and information, technical innovations, civil and criminal laws – and attempts to create ever increasing social systems of support piled atop one another.

No matter what you do, how well you’ve lived, what you’ve achieved or earned…a time will come when a crisis forces you to face death, and you will be separated from all that you’ve overcome, what you have built, what you fought for, and those you love.

In this stark reality, many come to the conclusion that to live is to face the tragedy of existence. Life is a joyous gift; you live, you and then you leave it all behind. Is this the cruelest of jokes?

Knowing all this, you might consider that, given the nature of seemingly overwhelming adversity and its presence in everyone’s life at certain intervals, that life is full of adversity because it’s designed to be exactly that way – that the tragedy of existence isn’t a cruel, cosmic farce but a well-articulated plan. This conclusion is arguably inescapable when you consider that everyone faces dramatic adversity in life at some point, in some cases, many times – and for some, adversity begets a lifetime of struggle. Adversity seems to be, in a very real and systemic way, “built into” life as a prerequisite for living.


What good can come from extreme adversity?

Wouldn’t life be better without suffering?

It sure sounds better, but I wonder…without adversity, what are we?

How would we make meaning?

How would we know who we are?

The truth is, without adversity, we wouldn’t know who we are or what we were capable of – much less who we could be. Perhaps, unavoidable loss creates meaning that comes from knowing that time is precious and fleeting for all of us – an impetus to dare greatly while we still can. In this way, adversity is necessary – not a plague to be avoided at all costs nor an important part of living – but simply necessary to offer each of us the opportunity to live out our highest potential and make meaning in profound ways that would otherwise not exist had we not had suffering with which to juxtapose.

Without adversity, how would we become something better and different for those around us – for our families and friends and those that need our help?

How would we know what grace, mercy, sacrifice, courage and persistence looked like in living form?

How would we know about those things that move our souls and spirits and touch our hearts in deep and powerful ways?

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not advocating for tragedy, nor am I suggesting that tragedy is fair. Quite the opposite, extreme adversity is wildly unfair, unfeeling and devoid of remorse or contrition. And, it is also the thing that each of us have in common with every other human on the planet. No matter how different you may think you are from those you don’t understand and those you avoid or despise, you are very much the same in that you share a common fate and a deep and vexing problem…what to do with the tragedy of existence.

Charles Dickens, in “A Christmas Carol,” writes “I have always thought of Christmas time as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Dickens points out that each of us are “fellow passengers to the grave” and are therefore bound by our common end. This alone is sufficient to cause us all to pause and to look closer to see ourselves in one another.

For too long now, we have reduced ourselves to the lowest common denominator, segmenting the human tribe by singular elements of our identity. That’s tragic and only serves to divide us across an existence that is marked by pain and suffering – a burden that should be, in many ways, shared by all.

We cannot measure good character – that highest and best thing – by the color of our skin, our background, ethnicity or any other derivative of orientation. That’s absolutely absurd. To identify with those small and often insignificant elements of what is otherwise a miraculous, complex and multi-layered life is to severely diminish our individual authenticity and common bond.

MLK had it right. In the final analysis, we can best be described as “the content of our character.” And character cannot be found in any single attribute of a person that any of us might utilize as a predictor of such. After all, character is revealed in the way in which we manage adversity and help others to handle theirs. In this, we become distinct and individualized by our responses to our adversity – positive or negative – and when repeated over time, we exist in the orbit created by these choices. Our habits borne of our character define who we are and what we stand for in the midst of the tragedy of life.

Real, inspired character is strengthened through struggle – we fail, and fall, and get back up over and over again. We build a powerful habit. And, we choose to rise in spite of the adversity and the tragedy of existence. We learn in this process, that this is free will – to confront adversity and to choose for ourselves what we will do, despite the fact that there is no permanent victory in the battles of life that ultimately end in the tragedy of existence. In the midst of such terrible knowledge, we discover our freedom to choose despite the circumstances. Our new found freedom and character bolster our courage – the one thing on which all other virtues depend. And, men begin to choose more noble paths through life – giving rise to grace and mercy while diminishing the power tragedy once wielded in our lives. These are high, worthy and valuable things.

Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “But it is loss that teaches us about the worth of things.”

And, pain and loss has taught us that nothing can release us from the specter of adversity in this world more than the “worth” of love. But love cannot be understood and held for more than a fleeting moment without the courage we develop by facing adversity. The courage to love and face the loss it may bring is monumental.

The philosopher Sophocles said, “One word frees us all from the weight and pain of life: that word is love.”

But, there cannot be love of others without sacrificial service. To try to love without serving and to try to serve without sacrifice is pure folly. It is love that compels the sacrifice required to serve others – on any scale.
As the ancient Greeks believed, societies flourish “when old men plant trees, the shade of which (they know) they will never sit.”

Thus, we discover that the tragedy of existence is pain and loss, and in the face of this pain, we confront tragedy and find the purest form of freedom – the freedom to choose our response to our adversity. That freedom grows our courage. Our courage releases and bolsters other virtues, and men choose more noble paths through life. We choose to serve others with the knowledge that we will someday be stopped – and yet we marshall our efforts and move forward knowing that the tragedy of existence can be trumped by love – and the planting of trees in whose shade we shall never sit.

Coaching Practice:

  • Find something greater than yourself to serve. Reconnect with those things in which you are powerfully and authentically drawn. Your unique making makes you uniquely qualified to serve powerfully in these areas.

Journal Prompt:

  • If pain and suffering are purposely “built into” life as a mechanism to teach us freedom, courage, virtue, love and sacrificial service, how did that happen?


  • Is it true that no matter the season or suffering of life you are experiencing, you can find your freedom, courage and strength through service. Share the burden of others; share your burden with them also.

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