One of the things I always thought odd about American taste in fiction and cinema is our aversion to tragedy. Filmmakers, in particular, are constantly changing movie endings for American audiences to “lighten” them up. Many British books just aren’t carted over the ocean for the simple fact that they’re just “too depressing.”
I had a lot of trouble understanding this phenomenon. I figured it had something to do with our belief in the American Spirit and Manifest Destiny. I figured we were terrified of tragedy, and in love with the idea that science and progress and good, god-fearing folks could overcome everything.
But it still bugged me. Because I love tragedy. I love watching the inexorable trudging on events toward a inevitable end knowing there’s no way to stop it… but watching our heroes bravely try anyway. I like the cathartic rush.
Then I watched this TED talk with Alain de Botton and was suddenly stuck by what he had to say about our aversion to tragedy. Tragedy, he points out, was created to teach us compassion. Instead of looking at somebody who’s down on their luck and saying, “God, she’s such a loser. She must have done something pretty terrible to end up that way,” we learn the old “there but for the grace of god go I” lesson. We learn that each person who’s down on their luck isn’t a loser, but merely “unfortunate.”
But in America, we don’t believe in misfortune. We believe in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We figure that bankrupt people living out of a friend’s house, unemployed, with chronic medical conditions, working temp jobs, are just… losers. Lazy. Meritless. After all, if they worked hard and had merit, they’d be winners, right? They’d be successful American entrepreneurs.
But what our American dream ignores – each and every time – is the influence of tragedy on people’s lives. We don’t like tragedy. We don’t like the idea that sometimes you really do get hit on the back of the head with a shovel for no reason. Sometimes, shit happens.
Because if shit happens, then we can’t ignore the bum on the street. We can’t plead entitlement for healthcare. We can’t just say, “If you don’t own your own house, you’re a loser,” or “if you don’t have a car, you’re a loser.”
Without tragedy, without teaching compassion and morality by putting us all in the shoes of good people who experience bad things, we look down on the poor, the uninsured, the bankrupt, the destitute, with scorn, derision, and not one ounce of compassion. After all, they must have *done* something (or *not* done something) to get there, right? I’m good, I’m hard working. That will never happen to *me.*
I mourn our lack of tragedy.