Finding meaning in tragedy


Finding meaning in tragedy


By Brandon McGinley
Princetonian Columnist

As the epigraph for "The Brothers Karamazov," Fyodor Dostoevsky presented John 12:24:

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."

At first glance, the verse is difficult to decipher due to the vexing translation. The novel that follows, however, allows for a better understanding of this significant statement, which is particularly powerful in this time of national mourning.

Faced with such senseless suffering, it is natural to recoil from any faith in divine harmony, for no amount of retribution, whether in this life or the next, can return the smiling faces of the lost to their friends and family. It is precisely at this moment, though, when that faith is being fired in the crucible of anger, grief and doubt, when it proves to be most comforting and, perhaps, most true.

One of the most profound truths presented by Dostoevsky in his last novel is often simply accepted in contemporary society, without exploring its ramifications: We are all connected. It is a statement short on words but long on meaning. In "The Brothers Karamazov," the reader is blessed with the omniscience to understand that the entire cast of characters is hurtling toward tragedy, while each individual within the plot, particularly the three brothers, do not conceive the ultimate consequences of their actions or inactions.

Though we strive, and rightfully so, for that connectedness in our lives — through friendships, community service, religious services, etc. — it is too often convenient to think of oneself as insulated from the rest of the community. At times of moral crisis, it is so much easier to disregard, either through true ignorance or active self-delusion, the propagation of ramifications throughout this tightly woven human network. When one decides to have sex without protection, proceed with an abortion procedure or take the life (or allow the taking of the life) of another human being, the consequences are never simply personal.

When we either temporarily overlook that connectedness or are so selfish that we ignore the implications for countless others of our own flawed decision-making, we commit a transgression against the entire human network and, if you wish, against the God who lovingly created each of us equally in his image. And so, in this manner, we can see the killer in Blacksburg, Va., often described as an outsider or loner, as someone who, feeling disconnected from the community by cultural issues or other mental strife, could claim no stake in the community and felt no moral obligation to it.

It is interesting, but ultimately unrewarding to examine in hindsight the psychology of the killer. What is most important to those affected by this tragedy is a fuller understanding of the meaning of their monumental loss. For if all of humanity is connected through this interwoven web, certainly the impact of death can be felt far beyond the individual.

This brings us to the Biblical verse which opened this column and to the powerful conclusion of "The Brothers Karamazov." A clearer translation of it is as follows: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." But what is the "fruit" that results from the tragic loss of innocent life?

In "The Brothers Karamazov," the answer is memories — fond remembrances of times spent together, of goodness, of love. Near the end of the plot, the young boy Ilyushechka, after several days of visits from his school friends, dies from a painful disease. After the funeral, the young monk Alyosha gathers the children together in the center of their somber Russian village.

He says to them, "You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home." But how can we compare the death of a young character in a nineteenth century Russian novel to the loss of 32 innocent lives on the campus of Virginia Tech?

To use the old adage, no man is an island. Each lost individual leaves behind hundreds if not thousands of others who have been touched by his or her life, and now untimely death. And those thousands of souls have been blessed with millions of memories of goodness and love. Across this nation and this globe, the tragedy has affected millions more who have no personal attachment to Virginia Tech, but who cannot help but reexamine their own values and priorities in the face of such destruction and who cannot help but be encouraged about the state of the human condition after viewing the solidarity of the Virginia Tech community.

This is not to glorify death, but to grasp meaning from the flames of despair, for no man dies in vain.

As the book ends, the boys come together to say, "We will remember, we will remember!"

At the Cassell Coliseum on the campus of Virginia Tech, the students raised their voiced to the rafters and exclaimed, through the grief, the mourning and the sadness that "We are Virginia Tech!"

<i>Brandon McGinley is a freshman from Pittsburgh, Pa. He may be reached at </i>


Original Source: <a href=> Daily Princetonian - April 19, 2007</a>


Brandon McGinley




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Brandon McGinley, “Finding meaning in tragedy,” The April 16 Archive, accessed June 18, 2024,