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Defining Tragedies

During my morning run, I obsessed on a video I’d seen about victims of the Texas flooding. Later, I viewed it again, so I wouldn’t have to paraphrase: “The blessing in all this is that she is with her children and she is with her babies and she will be with her babies always in heaven,” a woman said. The “she” to whom the woman referred is her sister, Laura McComb, missing along with her children. Missing and presumed dead. A family forever changed.

I continued to fixate on tragedies, the ones that sear our small personal worlds and then on those that violate the large, our biosphere.

Some people toss the words “tragic” and “tragedy” frivolously, revealing a lack of empathy perhaps or a misunderstanding of the definition, whether it’s the adjective or noun.

This week, my daughter-in-law sent a link to a condo for sale in Brooklyn—its price: $8.5 million. The photos illustrate a stunning space and the text: an “oasis” with a garden. The real estate agent said, “Of course, the garden could also be sold separately, but that would be tragic.” Tragic? What a thoughtless statement. Imagine the reaction of a Syrian refugee or the parents of a child born with deformities from the US’s use of depleted uranium to “tragic” as used in describing the parceling off of a garden.

I think about my small life, the deaths of family members and friends. My nephew Chase was killed in Iraq in August of 2005. My husband Charles died seven years ago. My father died seven months later, and then my mother in 2011. Chase’s death was a tragedy. He was young. I hope he died instantly when that vehicle-borne IED tore off his face. My husband’s death affected my little world, diminishing it, diminishing my joy of life, but this was not a tragedy. He lived and loved fully. And he said just two weeks before he died, “I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Although we might not express this in ordinary conversation with neighbors, those large tragedies that devastate humankind and our ecology should be as unacceptable as the tragedies that disappear the young, our loved ones, from our arms. Damage to our ecosystem may be considered a distant problem, something beyond our control, or just plain too despairing to talk about. Same for war with the invasion of countries, environmental degradation, butchery, droning, maiming human beings we don’t know, can’t see, people considered different.

As we move through whatever our brief period of time is, we can live in the present but think about the future and what we’re leaving our children, the world’s children. And do whatever we can, each of us, for peace, equality of opportunity, justice for all. This requires striking from the lexicon euphemisms like collateral damage, that stone-cold term that sanitizes murder, removing borders, barriers to understanding and compassion, chanting, “Earth! Earth! Earth!” instead of “USA! USA! USA!”, and acting to preserve and nurture our planet with tender stewardship.

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail:

More articles by:

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail:

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