The Tragic Gap

Parker Palmer, in conversation with Bill Moyers (Feb. 20, 2009):

I think the opportunity now is for us to get real. And I think that's going to make us, in the long run, more happy. The tragic gap, and I call it tragic not because it's sad. It is. But more fundamentally because it's an inevitable part of the human condition. Tragic in the sense that the Greeks talked about it. Tragic in the sense that Shakespeare talked about it. The tragic gap is the gap between what's really going on around us, the hard conditions in which our lives are currently immersed, and what we know to be possible from our own experience.

We don't see it every day. We may not see it very often. But we know it's a possibility among real people and real space and time. Now, what happens when we don't learn to hold the tension between what is and what we know to be possible?

I think what happens is we flip out on one side or the other.

Parker Palmer Flip out into too much reality and you get what I call corrosive cynicism. And corrosive cynicism is partly what's got us where we are. Corrosive cynicism is, "Oh, I see how the world is made. It's dog eat dog. It's whoever gets the biggest piece of the pie gets the biggest piece of the pie. So I'm going to take my share and run and let the devil take the hindmost." That's corrosive cynicism.

Flip out into too much possibility and you get irrelevant idealism. Which sounds very different from corrosive cynicism but both have the same function in our lives. Both take us out of the action. Both keep us out of the fray...Because if you don't have a capacity to hold the tension in your heart between reality and possibility then you're just going to give up eventually...I don't think in this culture we teach very much or have very much formation around the holding of these great tensions, which is so critical to our lives. We want instant resolution. You give us a tension. We want it to get it over within fifteen minutes.   

[Thanks Kit!]