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Is Existence a Comedy or Tragedy?

Short answer: Yes.

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Is Ben crying or laughing? Yes.

Somewhere in the 1300’s, Dante penned his seminal poem, The Divine Comedy. It’s written in three parts, broken up by the characters’ ascent from hell through purgatory to heaven. It moves from chaos to order; from pain to bliss. Thus, it is called a Comedy. 

This random question popped into my head a few weeks ago and I’ve been chewing on it for a bit in the back of my mind, keeping casual tallies of whether existence is meant to be taken lightly or seriously.

Is it facetious or grave?

For illustration, I’ll tell a story from last June.

Flores, Guatemala. My best friend Dave and I rented a canoe and paddled out to a place called Jorge’s Rope Swing. In this beautiful jungle island, there were three rope swings which swung you out over this jean-blue water and dropped you into it; so warm you could stay in all day, but just cool enough to refresh you each time.

The ropes carried you over these three giant concrete steps, or tiers, then there were a few feet of shallow, rocky water before it dropped off into divable depths.

A few runs in, Dave decided he wanted to swing with the rope in one hand and my GoPro in the other.

“Dave…are you sure you can do that? Not only are you holding your body weight, but there’s the force of the swing — “

“I can do it!” Dave protested. “You just think I’m weak!”

I conceded and he went for his run. In the GoPro footage, he looks into the camera, breathes heavily, and goes for it. The viewer sees the rope for a split second, then suddenly, clunks and commotion and then the camera gurgles under water.

Dave had run, lasted about .6 seconds, and his hand slipped off the rope. He landed in the 1-foot-deep water and tumbled with the force into deeper water. At the moment his hand slipped off the rope, I snapped this photo from the sideline:

Daave_36 copy

Later, when editing my photos from the day, I discovered this one and laughed the hardest I laughed in all of 2019. I was weeping and couldn’t breathe. Life seemed like a grand comedy and I couldn’t keep up with the humor of reality.

Dave walked out of the water unscathed. But later on that day, after the adrenaline had worn off, his ankle swelled up like a balloon from hitting the rocks so hard in shallow water. Oddly, it didn’t hurt for a couple days, but the pain came on slow. He saw several doctors who said it wasn’t broken, but it just hurt and the swelling didn’t go down. He began to get worried. It set his exercise back a few weeks and caused him to limp for a while.

But telling the story, Dave and I both laugh at the episode. It hurt a lot — for him, obviously — but it was a hilarious attempt at something that was doomed to go wrong from the start.

The same story is hilarious and tragic. It could have been worse; he could have slid off after just .2 seconds and slammed his head against the concrete tier and that would be the end of Dave, there in Flores. But he didn’t. His existence spins madly forward!

Or, take this story I just read about and now have tears pouring down my face because I can’t stop laughing: 20 years ago, supermodel Fabio was promoting a new roller coaster and killed a goose with his face. He finished out the ride pulling up with blood all over his face. Hilarious. But it also involved death. What on earth?

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So, I think the answer I’ve come to is, yes. God designed reality to function in such a way that is is simultaneously goofy and beautiful. It is meant to be taken seriously, but also, if you can’t laugh at it then you’re doing it wrong.

I often have pondered the fact that there are multiple books of mourning in the Bible (It’s called Lamentations) but there is no book of comedy. You could argue that Song of Songs is a revelry in romantic bliss, and Ecclesiastes instructs us to drink and enjoy our lives, but perhaps the writers are cautious of promoting seeing life as too frivolous.

After all, it’s likely more important to recognize that there are thousands of homeless people starving in your city right now; that systemic racism is eroding the unity of mankind, and that millions of babies never saw light outside the wombs of their mothers. These are serious things. There is gravity there.

But racism is slowly (maranatha) being decoded as people strive to eradicate it. New York has a zero-tolerance policy for sleeping on the streets, and is putting homeless in hotel rooms. Abortion numbers drop every year.

Are we moving from chaos to order?

Do we, like the distant echoes of Dante which have reverberated from the early Renaissance to now, see comedy in our existence? Comedy in the sense that the overarching narrative of mankind is getting better — slowly — rather than worse.

If we zoom out from our own lives and myopic struggles, do we see that the Transcendent is moving history from violence to peace; from strife to unity?

I’m hopeful that my existence is meant to be lighter than heavier. If we zoom out even further than human machinations, we may see that the cosmos indeed has a plan which is nearer to a comedy than a tragedy. God took the waters of Genesis 1 — a symbol of chaos to the ancient world, understandably so — and separated them like a comb through tangled hair. And at the end of all things, we will feast indefinitely; party forever.

The grand narrative will have moved from a place of chaos to delight.

This is one of the great tensions we must live with: the kingdom which exists as already but not yet. There is still genocide in Africa, but Dave also narrowly survives his tumble from the rope swing. There is reason to cry but reason to laugh. My belief in a fun God gives me hope that as the years march on eternally, we will shed our reasons to cry and gain more reasons to laugh.

Is the universe inherently funny or serious?

yah.

e

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