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Dave Brisbin

Tragic Gap

A wealthy man asks a Zen master to write a text that will inspire and remind him of his love and devotion for his family. The master returns with a beautiful calligraphy that reads: The father dies. The son dies. The grandson dies. The man is furious, but the master calmly tells him that this is his blessing. If his son died first, it would be devastating. If his grandson died, unbearable. But if his family disappears in this order, he will be blessed and his family will continue for generations.

There is a natural order that we see written in life or just in our own minds, and we are very attached to it as the way things should be. Any losses we suffer hurt, but when they violate the natural order, as the death of a child, we are devastated by both the loss itself and the offense against the natural order. We anguish and rage in a tragic gap between the way things are and the way we think they should be, a limit situation where we run headlong into the limit of our ability to control an outcome or even the narrative in our head.

Call it moral distress—the conflict between what is and what should be, combined with the vulnerable powerlessness to bring the two together. Like burnout—responsibility without authority—we can only maintain so long before it eats us out from the inside with negative emotions, physical symptoms, and eventually cognitive distortions. We try to jump the gap by searching for rational answers or placing blame, anything to explain and relieve the violation…but there are no rational or emotional answers to the deep, existential questions raised there.

Jesus shows the way through the tragic gaps of life without losing identity or faith in the process. It’s the way of descent, becoming unattached, unidentified with the narratives in our minds that judge what should be. Those who were marginalized by life, the poor, those least invested in the status quo always followed Jesus first, were the most open to accept life just as it was with hope and gratitude. Because working for change without first accepting the limits of this day is just another tragic gap.


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