Tragedy Without Good Lighting or a Powerful Soundtrack

Real tragedy doesn’t come with a soundtrack. Is this obvious? Maybe. Maybe not. Over the course of this year we’ve been trapped at home often seeking solace in film. We watch movies that package love, tragedy, obstacles and hope with good lighting, booming soundtracks, beautiful people and gorgeous cinematography. And while we’ve always sought to lose ourselves in celluloid; movies and television today sit in stark contrast to our day-to-day pandemic-era lives.

To watch a riveting film and then see similar struggles play out around us can actually serve as a sad reminder of how pedestrian and raw true tragedy can be. Quite the antithesis of life in movie land. Which isn’t to say movies aren’t magical, uplifting and inspirational. But it’s hard for those facing the loss of work, business, dreams, health and loved one to get the happy, resolute ending we’d all expect before flipping off the TV.

Those Magical Movie Moments

No matter the struggle, movies condition us to believe that the hero’s journey is real. That everything in our lives and the universe will line up in the end if you focus hard enough. When younger I’d channel that scene at the end of so many movies where the character sashays down the street. Or stands up in the courtroom. This hero self overcame disease, monsters, the apocalypse, mean people, grave odds and so on. She was whip smart and laugh out-loud funny. All of this set to pulsating, uplifting music. Imagination is the stuff of hope, creation and real-life success; so it’s not all bad. But sometimes reality can come crashing down around us without any of that movie magic. And whether it’s a seismic tragedy or even the loss of experience or normalcy, the stark contrast between the gloss of imagination and the reality of day-to-day life can wear you down. Life has never seemed so in contrast to fantasy.

Conversation or Consternation?

I’ve thought a lot about how movies lead us astray when it comes to tragedy and struggle. This week while watching the trailer for heavily-lauded Pieces of a Woman, I felt a particular pang of knowing. It’s a story that seems close(ish) to my own but instead swathed in beautiful lighting and lush cinematography. The perfectly sad eyes of a gorgeous heroine struggling to get to grips with her tragic circumstances. There is much talk of the movie as a ‘career defining moment’ for the luminous Vanessa Kirby. An actress who is still young, without children and getting attention for a tale lived out by many women each and every day. She’s an artist; that’s her job. But of course every story told on the big screen is also someone else’s tale told in whispers. And that can feel strange. And sad.

Of course every tragedy elevated to a movie screen can stimulate dialogue and bring awareness to important issues. Empathy and understanding are meaningful byproducts of collectively experiencing a brave film (Philadelphia comes to mind). But sometimes seeing your story played out publicly can also be a colorless reminder that reality is nowhere near as powerful or full of meaning as it can seem on screen.

My Music-Less Tragedy

It feels so weighty and futile to even delve into the details of a personal tragedy that happens in one way or another each day to someone somewhere in the world. Especially now as the pace of death from Covid-19 hastens. But understanding the universality of grief is something I have learned. Twelve years ago my doctor started telling me the story of another patient of his who lost her child. I took issue with how the details of my story were different. And he stopped me mid-huff and said: “grief is grief is grief.” There is no hierarchy to loss. And that lesson has stayed with me. Grief and loss are as mundane and predictable to mankind as they are overwhelming, unique and individual to the sufferer.

Which brings me back to the movies…one of the most powerful and painful memories I have about losing my just week-old daughter was how pedestrian it all was in the end. There wasn’t any magic to her passing. No flash of light. Nor music from heaven. No deep learning or great epiphany about the meaning of life. I really did think there would be. If it didn’t stand out as a unique experience then what of our lives?

As I emerged that day blinking from the dark hospital into the light of a bright beautiful late Autumn sky, I found myself on the other side of something life changing while folks were lining up at Starbucks. In other words, living life as if nothing has happened. Because it didn’t. It only happened to my family and me.

But Hope Does Float

All of this is not to say that life sucks and let’s stop imagining otherwise. I thought there would some sort of ‘club of the knowing’ after my tragedy. And maybe there is. Because empathy is powerful. It’s something you can’t take away from a movie but can be telegraphed through shared experience.

And it can be anything you are struggling with where a does of reality is required…from work to health and family. Women are particularly afflicted right now while shouldering a disproportionate share of pandemic responsibility.

So let’s ask each other to tell her story. Because once you stop hoping for the soundtrack to your pain you might actually find music in hearing the real stories of one another. So tomorrow instead of watching the movie-version, ask someone to tell you their story instead.