On Tragedy, Ambiguity, and Story

A couple of days ago I was listening to my students discuss a section of Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. It was one of my favorite sections: “How to Tell a True War Story.” There are so many incredible quotes from this chapter, but this is the one that applies to how I’m feeling now:

“Mitchell Sanders was right. For the common soldier, at least, war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can’t tell who you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity”(82).

During our discussions throughout the day, I tried to explain to my students what O’Brien is saying about traumatic experiences like war. They wanted to know why the thing that wakes the main character up at night is not Curt Lemon’s accident but his buddy singing “Lemon Tree” as they clean up after his death. I was trying to explain how it’s sometimes weird things that stick with us after trauma. I was trying to explain that traumatic experiences don’t make sense, and if we try to make them make sense, we are sometimes, as O’Brien says, not telling the truth. I struggled to help them understand this chapter, and from the looks on their faces, I’m not sure that I accomplished my goal.

I had no idea, when I was fumbling through these thoughts with my students, what would be waiting for me when I checked the news at the end of the day.
This year has seen tragedy in our nation, notably the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and this week’s explosions at the Boston Marathon. Like O’Brien says, what overwhelms me in the face of these and other events is not the expected emotions like grief or fear.

What overwhelms me is the ambiguity.

Part of this may be my own psychological inability to process tragedy. But also, I think, I can’t figure out how to deal with the chaotic barrage of responses. The good mixes with the bad; the stories of the dead mix with the stories of the heroes. The grief and coverage of funerals mix with the arguments of political factions. The faces of children mix with congressional hearings. Love and courage blend with outrage and accusation.

This is, I suppose, the very definition of the term “emotional turmoil.”

Yesterday morning, the news felt like this kind of turmoil. News of the Boston incident was sandwiched between stories of new opera performances and the unveiling of gorgeous new artwork at the airport.

How does such beauty and terror exist simultaneously? How do we flourish in a world where these realities constantly collide?

When I have experienced emotionally overwhelming events of my own, when one of my children was born or when a loved one died, what overwhelmed me most was that life just goes on in the face of the wondrous or terrifying. That the universe doesn’t stop and take notice and bend all its happenings to this one event in my own small existence.

“But stop!” I want to scream. “Take note that this is happening now!”

In the end, I have realized, this may be the cry of all writers. This is what O’Brien is trying to articulate when he explains how to tell a true war story to those who have never experienced war themselves. This is the cry of Keats as he envies the Grecian Urn with its scenes frozen in time, the cry of Hamlet as he watches Denmark move on so quickly from his beloved father’s death. Perhaps this cry is one impetus that gives birth to art: the desire to take note.

Life doesn’t stop and take note. It really can’t. But what I realize today is that stories can. Stories can reach into the ambiguity that is everyday existence and pluck out one experience, one emotion, one person on which to meditate. Stories can fully explore this one aspect of life, drawing it to the forefront and barring the door to other unrelated events and emotions. When a writer tells a story, he attempts to pluck out a single thread from the giant knot of life, putting it on display for the world, meditating on its singularity apart from the chaotic whole.

Stories shout to the universe, “Look! This happened!”

My students think sometimes that literature is confusing and ambiguous. But the older I get, I find that life is confusing and ambiguous, and stories help me sort it all out. In a story I experience the slowing of time, the concentration of energy on a single idea or experience. When I’m in the middle of a story, I can escape information and emotion overload. I can clear my head.

When tragedy occurs, we are drawn to stories: we tell of the lives of our loved ones, we read or listen to tales of survivors or victims. We make sense by focusing on particular people or particular moments. We honor the dead; we honor the living. And in these stories, we stop time and disengage from chaos.

So here’s a tiny story:

I’ve been wrestling with this post for the past day, and it was still very much in my head this morning. During our discussion, a student asked his classmates, “What do you guys think about war and ambiguity?”


Another student finally asked, “Does anyone know what ‘ambiguity’ means?”

I hope so. That’s a word they’re going to need.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway, 1990. Print.


  1. I too search for a meaning in all these things. Now we mourn the losses in West after the explosion, and even local events like the closing of the Cargill Plant in Plainview, where a large portion of my students’ parents worked. I am often stumped trying to find meaning in them. I think most often I find some order by either talking with others who are more wise and well-informed, or by simply writing.


    1. Thanks for reading, Josh. I also find that I am driven to writing. Even if I can’t find meaning, I can focus and meditate on one moment at a time. I’m also driven to reading the writing of others, especially writing that I know addresses how I’m feeling.


  2. This post is outstanding, even by your usual high standard. I envy your ability to use life and literature to interpret one another.

    I can’t remember where I read this quote–it was a long time ago–but your post brings it to mind: “life goes on after the tearing of death.” I think “tearing” is a good word. Someone’s death, whether natural or manmade, rips away something irreplaceable, and leaves us clutching at a jagged seam. We can’t fix it, and yet…life goes on. Even in the best stories about tragedy and loss, life goes on.


    1. Thanks Jake–I always value your opinion as a writer, as I know you also have high standards. I really like that quote also. “Tearing” is such a perfectly disconcerting word for the experience.


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