By Heather Judd
In the movie Stranger Than Fiction, Harold Crick suddenly realizes that an unseen voice is narrating his life. As he tries to decide whether the story he is living is a comedy or a tragedy, he makes a tally mark in a little notebook whenever something good or bad happens to him. Considering that he is a socially-awkward IRS agent auditing a strong-minded and resentful young woman whom he finds particularly attractive, it comes as little surprise that at the end of the day he has almost a full page of tragedy tallies and only four lonely marks for comedy. As he steps out into the rainy night he remarks, “This may sound like gibberish to you, but I think I’m in a tragedy.”
Like Harold Crick, most of us are probably inclined to assume that the ratio of joy to disappointment is what defines the type of life we are living, but, in fact, the amount of pleasure or sorrow in our days does not necessarily correlate to the dividing line between a happy and a tragic life. Great playwrights have long understood this truth, which reveals itself in the surprising similarities between comedy and tragedy. Comedies such as those of Shakespeare or his ancient predecessor Plautus rely on many convoluted difficulties, confusions, and misunderstandings, any of which could be equally at home in tragedy.
Take, for instance, the play Much Ado About Nothing: At one point, a wedding is interrupted with dreadful accusations against the bride, Hero, who then swoons and is subsequently convinced to go into hiding and pretend to be dead. You may recall at least one other Shakespearean heroine who goes into hiding and pretends to be dead. However, unlike the tragic Juliet, Hero is eventually exonerated and reunited with her repentant bridegroom.
If Hero had followed Harold Crick’s example and tallied her moments of happiness versus suffering, she likely would have concluded that her life was tragic. Being jilted at the altar, having your good name publically besmirched by your bridegroom, and feigning death are definite downs to life. But Much Ado About Nothing is not a tragedy, and Hero is not a tragic character. Why not?
Whether a story is tragedy or comedy can finally be judged only because of its ending. Tragedy ends with the finality of death, often for more than one character. Comedy ends with the joy of hope, often in the form of marriage. Never mind that Macbeth and his Lady actually become monarchs of Scotland in the middle of the play. Their end is madness and death. Pay no heed that three pairs of lovers are all in love with the wrong people for most of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play ends with the blessing of three rightly-ordered marriages. All that transpired before counts little or nothing once the ending grants resolution.
So it is, too, in our lives. We as Christians face affliction, hardship, and disappointment throughout the days of this life. If we kept tally marks, there would be many times when the “tragedy” pages would fill quickly and the “comedy” pages would remain depressingly empty. The Christian is not promised a life of glory, wealth, or happiness, but of persecution by the devil and the world. Measured out in moments, our lives may very well appear tragic.
Yet, like Hero of Much Ado About Nothing, our tragedy is transient. When she reveals herself alive, her father proclaims to her amazed bridegroom, “She died, my lord, but whiles her slander lived.” It is a fictional echo of the profound Christian truth, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Even now, in the midst of seemingly inescapable tragedy, we are actually very much alive, waiting only for the revealing of this truth at the end of all things.
In this earthly life, our joy is often hidden so thoroughly that what we see is only tragedy and trouble. Yet we are to judge our lives not by these daily hardships but by their ends, and here we have sure, certain hope. We will live forever with Christ in glory and joy. Our end is not of eternal death but of the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb. This is why we confess with Saint Paul the sure knowledge that the tally marks of tragedy in this present life are not worth counting and “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18), “for this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming. The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up, and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call. When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.