Culture | History | Philosophy

Bridging the Tragic Gap

I spoke with a friend who is experiencing some PTSD after all the extremist action and rhetoric of the last few years. I don’t have anything to offer but support and faith in progress. Words, really, backed by optimism. But I know I don’t see the world the same way that someone targeted by bigotry and hate does, nor do I feel the gut punch of lost hope and lack of opportunity that the marginalized and enraged feel. I tend to reside in the middle, seeing the possibility of a future where the gaps between us disappear. But the cold reality is that won’t happen in my lifetime. And there lies the tragic gap.

“By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes…
I call it “tragic” because it’s a gap that will never close, an inevitable flaw in the human condition. No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals…
That means we need to change our calculus about what makes an action worth taking and get past our obsession with results. – Parker Palmer, The Sun interview, If Only We Would Listen

There is a lot to chew on in this 2012 interview, but it’s Parker’s concept of the tragic gap that took hold. For those of us who fancy ourselves bridge-builders, it resonates. For we fill the gap with love and possibility, only to see the divide grow as more people embrace the extremes on either side. Knowing what’s possible and how far we seem to be from it are frustrating at best, tragic at worst.

So what are we to do? Change our calculus and not obsess with results? Modify expectations and chase the small victories that get us incrementally closer? You see the friction in the world as the two sides of the gap pull away from each other and wonder if bridge-building is even possible. Seen from the lens of history progress is clear, but we never quite get all the way there before the gaps seems to grow again. But is this a trick of the mind at work, just so much amplified noise? The optimism in me believes we’re closer than we sound like we are. With much work still to do.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s a tough blow to realize we will never be bridge the tragic gap in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Seeing our own unarmed truth for what it is and doing our small part offers tangible, incremental progress. Each of us, small links in the chain, reaching across the chasm to find a link to a better future. Beyond us, but out there waiting.

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