Tragedy: When Everything is Different

There are days in life that feel translucent and imagined. Days that yield a confident sense of cause and effect—we think we know what to anticipate. Although there are touches of sharp realism here and there, interacting with the day happens with minimal skepticism; everything clicks. Then something happens, a pandemic throws the world into turmoil or a plane falls out of the sky. The day violently loses all sense of transcendence, throwing us into a rollercoaster of emotions from anger to faith to doubt. Pain is casual and indifferent towards us as we go along, the cause and effects of life are still concrete, but they cannot unravel the mystery of pain. Nothing is the same as it was before, and a profound sense of isolation washes over us in our attempts to face the pain. Eternity clips away at time. Our own identity feels lost in the tragedy and we are left asking the questions: Why do bad things happen? Is there anything beyond us holding the world together? Does God care about the pain that we are experiencing? Although Harry Styles probably would not describe his experience with pain this way, tragedy seems to be just below the surface of the lyrics in his new song “As It Was.”

Harry Styles, perhaps best known as the teenage pop star who was a part of the band One Direction, started creating his own music back in 2017. One of his most popular albums titled Fine Line was released in December of 2019, giving him only about three and a half months to tour before cancellations due to the Coronavirus. His third and most recent studio album, Harry’s House, was released in 2022. The song “As It Was” has been topping charts since its release date and is a trending song on TikTok. The tune is entrancing and fun to listen to, but even teenagers on the internet are noticing the distressed lyrics beneath the upbeat and playful tune. Styles himself describes the song as “a death march.”1 In many of the interviews about “As It Was,” Styles states that the lyrics are heavily influenced by his experience during the pandemic lockdown. During this time he lacked a strong sense of identity with his tour and work being on hold. He feared losing his career and how he would handle the repercussions2.

Obviously, Styles’ music and fame pulled through the pandemic. In the song “As It Was,” he compares his life before the pandemic to now. He states, “For me, everything that happened in the pandemic, like, it’s never gonna be the same as before. All of the [bad] things happening in the world, it was so obvious that you just can’t go backward.”3 In the chorus he sings:

In this world, it’s just us
You know it’s not the same as it was
In this world, it’s just us
You know it’s not the same as it was
As it was, as it was
You know it’s not the same

He comments that pandemics and other sorts of horrific events force you to take issues head-on because “you just can’t then pretend that [tragic] stuff doesn’t exist.”4 Like Styles, we have all had to face problems of evil and problems of pain in our lives. Yet, those with a Christian worldview should face problems of evil differently than Styles does.

Annie Dillard is an American-Christian author and essayist and the youngest writer to ever win the Pulitzer Prize5. In her book Holy the Firm, a nonfiction narrative written in response to the violent injury of a little girl in a plane accident, she asks, “Why would an omnipotent, omniscient and merciful God allow natural evil to happen?” 6 This is the problem of evil and Dillard wonders: Does God care about the pain that we are experiencing?

The world is full of evil and suffering, “it trickles and soaks and floods into every aspect of our existence.”7 Because this evil exists everywhere, all worldviews must offer an explanation for the question Why do bad things happen? They must explain what evil and tragedy are, why they exist, and how to face them8. Different worldviews view violence and tragedy in their own distinct ways.

Isolation and Pain
Despite their different beliefs and backgrounds, Dillard and Styles struggle with feelings of personal inadequacy and isolation, which seem to be side effects of tragedy. Styles sings, “In this world, it’s just us;” Dillard writes, “There is no one but us…we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us.”9 When the differences between what used to be and what is now are contrasted, a potent feeling of inadequacy takes over. It is obvious what has gone wrong and how we have failed, but what is unintelligible is how to fix it. Self-introspection shows that we—humans who make mistakes—are not going to fix the pain. From this place of isolation and inadequacy, people ask: Is there anything beyond us holding the world together? Is there someone who can fix my problems?

The worst comments to hear in these difficult situations are sentimental in nature, offering “the dubious chance to feel while bypassing the messiness of human engagement.”10 You know exactly how this feels—you feel genuinely depressed or a family member dies and someone says, “Cheer up, no one wants you to be sad” or “Just focus on happy memories, they can make you feel better.” These answers settle for surface-level connection, are wispy explanations for tragedy, and are unrealistic ways to handle the pain we experience. Sentimental answers to tragic situations are at best an excuse to ignore the pain and at worst demoralizing and painful. Overall, sentimental answers are inauthentic solutions to pain and ignore the painful reality of what we are experiencing. Yet these are the kinds of explanations for pain that most of us are used to hearing when we are struggling.

It is a mystery as to what Harry Styles’ answer to the problem of pain is. Many people do not have a well-thought-out explanation for what goes wrong in the world and how to fix it. Instead, the issues are “band-aided” through damaging, insufficient, and sentimental comments.

Acquainted with Grief
The Christian worldview, when presented authentically, should give us a strong and helpful answer to the problem of pain. Christians should not be afraid to stare the hard realities of life straight in the face, especially since Jesus is described as “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). Any Christian who “wraps himself in sunbeams and daffodils fails to be Christian at all, producing bloodless, lifeless” answers to pain for a shallow consumerist culture, “not an authentic Christian encounter with a hurting world.”11

Dillard’s authentic Christian answer to the problem of pain happens after page-upon-page arguing with God, struggling with the inadequacy of her ability to solve the problem, and a deep longing to see God’s hand. In the end, she finds her answer for how to face pain in the character of God himself. This God of the Bible does not sit high and aloof spouting useless sentimental thoughts for our struggles, instead, he stoops down to become acquainted with our grief (Hebrews 4:15). Dillard discovers a God who does not band-aid our problems but enters into pain with us in order to obliterate it and bring us into his Kingdom whole.

God’s plan for evil and suffering has a just end, offering us hope in suffering and reconciliation at the end of time. Elisabeth Elliot, a missionary who suffered the murder of her husband on the mission field—along with countless other losses— says the following about suffering: “When our souls lie barren in a winter which seems hopeless and endless, God has not abandoned us. His work goes on. He asks for acceptance of the painful process and our trust that He will indeed give resurrection life.”12 Having confidence that God has not abandoned us is a difficult thing to do.

For Dillard, beginning to trust that God had not abandoned her in the pain meant being brutally honest with him; she argued with God because she believed in him and expected him to meet her in the pain. For Elliot, trusting God in the middle of pain meant accepting his promise that he would never leave her on the basis of his proven character toward her. For all Christians, we cannot trust in an imagined god that we do not know or who is far off, we must trust in the God that we know, the God who enters into pain with us.

It is Christ who spans the gap between the far country of our broken experience to our redeemed and future home with God; Christ holds the world together.13 “Although others may offer no hope, false hope, or illusory hope, the Bible offers realistic hope because of the work of our compassionate Savior.”14 Certainly this truth cannot alleviate the nuanced aches and pains or personal dilemmas that come from every type of evil; each instance of human suffering is never how the world was intended to be. Yet the only comprehensive explanation of the power of evil and its imminent demise is found in the Bible, along with a faithful God who faces evil straight on and defeats it.15 Although we may resonate with “it’s just us” in the middle of our pain, the Bible reveals a God who not only cares about pain but is suffering with us and obliterating evil in order that one day we can experience the solace of victory and healing.

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