The Parallax Tragedy: Part Two

In case you missed it, be sure to read Part 1 of this post here. In it, Alex Houseknecht reflects on how he found himself drawn to, and even identifying with, narratives of tragedy and harm. Alex continues the discussion this week by examining the concept of parallax and how it might help reveal the hidden beauty that is buried by tragedy.

In The Fidelity of Betrayal, theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins says, “To speak of a parallactical point of view is to refer to the phenomenon whereby a single object appears to change in a way that is fundamentally opposed to its previous manifestation simply because of the observer’s change in position.” When we face tragedy, this shift occurs in the realization that we are engaging our own beauty. In other words, when we encounter the other and, in facing tragedy, allow ourselves to experience the rupture that occurs in the awareness of the perpetration of harm, we can move into the grief process and find that our beauty has been covered by evil. In this way, grief is not necessarily the recognition of the perpetration of harm, but rather the response that occurs when we acknowledge that our beauty has been eclipsed by evil. The encounter with beauty brings about an understanding of the loss that has occurred in its absence.

The encounter with beauty brings about an understanding of the loss that has occurred in its absence.

My encounters with tragedy on Aurora Avenue created internal ruptures by reflecting themes of trauma in my own life that I did not have full awareness of. My drive and increasing desperation was a bodily response that was communicating a need to face the harm that had previously been perpetrated against me. My attempts at rescue were projections of my own desire to move towards grief, and subsequently the kind of healing that exposes beauty.

The way our beauty becomes exposed in this process is evident in the mechanisms that we utilize in order to cope with previous trauma. These mechanisms appear to work in a way that preserves a coherent image of the perpetrator, usually a trusted family member or friend, as a loving and caring adult. To acknowledge that the person who is supposed to protect us and provide for our most basic needs is perpetrating harm against us is overwhelming beyond capacity. In this way, survivors of trauma must turn against themselves, evidenced through mechanisms like self-harm and addiction, by blaming the body and spirit they believe must have been responsible for seducing harm. In other words, we blame our own beauty for being the catalyst of the perpetration of evil, and develop behaviors that are designed to keep beauty hidden.

Herein lies the significance of tragedy. In facing tragedy our perspective is fundamentally altered in that we point towards the harm that was perpetrated against us, thereby revealing that it was not beauty that caused harm, but rather that our dignity was violated. In the act of grieving, our beauty is once again exposed. This perhaps speaks to the resistance so often present in facing tragedy, as its parallactical nature disrupts our personal identity and our sense of time. If harm was perpetrated against us, our history is altered as we see events and relationships in new light. The future births new potential in the realization that our pain is not caused by our inescapable bodies and minds, but rather by past events that continue to impact our lives through symptoms and behaviors. And the present becomes a new concept as we find ourselves discovering our body, engaging our feelings with love and grace, and creating boundaries that allow us to retain a sense of identity while engaging others.

This journey can begin at any time, by developing an awareness of our responses not only to tragedy, but to expressions of dignity as well. How do we feel when we observe someone speaking boldly about an issue they are passionate about, or creating and showing vulnerable pieces of art? Is it shame or embarrassment? And in our engagement with tragedy, do we cringe and shrink away, or conversely, find ourselves deeply embedded in suffering without a sense of who we are? These feelings communicate important messages about how we perceive our own beauty, and indicate ruptures that potentiate the awareness of previous harm or trauma. If we acknowledge and face tragedy, we can participate in a process that brings about personal healing, and simultaneously propels us into the world as we begin to have the capacity to see and experience suffering from a view that is relentlessly hopeful.

If we acknowledge and face tragedy, we can participate in a process that brings about personal healing.

In my work as a therapist with adults with severe mental illness, I continue to be ruptured by the narratives of tragedy that I experience on a daily basis. I wrestle with grief and despair as I dip below the surface with those who sometimes seem driven towards chaos and death. But these encounters always contain the unbearable presence of hope, pointing only towards the beauty that lies just beyond the eclipse.

Alex Houseknecht is a therapist and video artist living in Chicago. He received a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology in 2014.