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Why I’m a Tragic Optimist

Seeing the movie “Civil War”

This isn’t a movie review

It’s more like a debrief. Because seeing Civil War, the 2024 film written and directed by Alex Garland, is an experience so intense that it requires some metabolizing.

After the film, I went to the ladies’ room, where I encountered other women who’d just come from the same screening. We all looked shaken. Oh my God, we said to each other. That could so happen.

As my husband and I left the cinema, we passed a group of other patrons huddled in a somber circle, talking in hushed voices about the film.

I was tempted to intrude: Please, can we talk about this? Days later, I’m still processing.

I want everyone in America to see Civil War. Everyone over the age of 15, anyway. Not because it’s action-packed (it is), or stunningly photographed (it is), or superbly directed and acted (ditto). But because it’s probably the most important movie of the last five years.

The movie is described as a “dystopian war film” but that hardly conveys its power. We learn right away that there is a US President who has claimed a third term. He publicly insists his forces are about to achieve victory against a seceded faction, an unexplained coalition of Texas and California.

The war rages among strip malls and neighborhoods, scenes of devastation in formerly placid environments that look heartbreakingly familiar. The conflict has clearly gone on long enough that people have found strategies to adapt, some of which are brutal.

But this is not a film about politics. It doesn’t take a stand on right or left or which side of the conflict is morally defensible. It doesn’t explain how the war started or what the opposing groups believe about themselves or each other.

The point isn’t which side is better or worse: the point is to, like the journalists who are the film’s main characters, bear witness. To behold, without looking away, at what could follow when the basis of American democracy — which currently seems more like a tissue-thin membrane than a firm foundation — rips apart.

Please, go see Civil War. But don’t take the kids. And maybe skip the popcorn.

And then what?

I’m not inviting you to go so you can be appalled and depressed, and I certainly don’t advocate that you use viewing Civil War as I fear some will — to further distance or desensitize yourself to the horrors that could come on top of the ones that already exist IRL.

Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film, a seasoned war photographer, says that when she was capturing tragic images from foreign conflicts, she’d always thought she was sending a message home: “Don’t do this.”

The hope, I assume, of the filmmakers is that we heed the warning. That we don’t do this.

But what if we do?

Or what if any of the delicate fuses on the world’s other powder kegs — Ukraine, Gaza/Israel/Iran, Sudan, etc. — go off? Or we tip over the irredeemable edge of climate crisis?

What if we have to live in the aftermath?

I am not being a pessimist, although it might sound like it. Despair and cynicism do us no good. What I suggest instead is an approach developed by Viktor Frankl, one that he termed “tragic optimism.”

Viktor Frankl, 1905–1997, was a psychiatrist who lived through most of the 20th Century. He’s best known for having survived the Holocaust — during which he spent three years among four camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering III, and Türkheim. His father died in the Terezín Ghetto, his brother and mother died at Auschwitz, and his wife died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

When he returned to Vienna, nothing of his old life — not his family, his home, or the vibrant Jewish culture there — remained.

Instead of giving up, he wrote a book, Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in English in 1959. It became an immediate best-seller, and in 1991 was listed as “one of the ten most influential books in the U.S.” by the Library of Congress.

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

Frankl’s experiences in the camps underscored what he’d already been developing before the war: Logotherapy, based on the concept that the primary human drive is to find meaning in life.

Those who could find such meaning in the worst circumstances, he saw, were the ones who were most likely to survive and emerge with their humanity intact.

It’s a book that has as much relevance today as it did when it was first published.

He also wrote a short essay explaining his idea of tragic optimism

I’ve only read the essay itself recently, although there’s been a lot written about it in the past few years  — often proposing tragic optimism as a counter to toxic positivity.

You could see it that way. But tragic optimism could also serve as a guidepost for living through hard times — really hard times, when what we fear most has happened and we are left in the ruins of the life we understood to be normal.

It also serves as encouragement to preserve and defend what is most worth preserving and defending — because therein lies meaning, whether our actions are modest or grand.

Here’s what speaks to me about tragic optimism: it refuses to sugarcoat reality, yet it is infused with the premise that meaning and goodness — even joy — are intrinsic and possible, even when humanity is at its lowest ebb.

Frankl touches on this idea in his famous book:

“I speak of a tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

There’s nothing either Pollyanna-ish or despairing in this view

It reminds me of what I’ve read of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism: a forthright embrace of what is in front of us. A firm intention to make the best of it that we can — to find, in whatever we are experiencing, that basic human drive: meaning.

In Frankl’s view, what truly crushes the soul is a sense of meaninglessness. And yet, even if conditions are terrible, if we can discover meaning, life is always, always worth living.

Here are some quotes from his essay I find stirring:

Once an individual’s search for a meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering . . .

. . . even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.

and this eye-popper:

. . . at any time each of the moments of which life consists is dying, and that moment will never recur. And yet is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives? It certainly is, and hence my imperative: Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.

With unsentimental compassion, Frankl asks us to put some distance between our reactions and our actions. To ask ourselves: is this the best possible use of this moment?

It’s a tall order. But I suspect Viktor Frankl and Marcus Aurelius would agree that we weren’t put here to do what one of the Civil War characters wryly remarks that her parents, tucked away on farms outside of the conflict zones are doing: “pretending none of this is happening.”

Frankl doesn’t mean we should plunge ourselves into difficulty and pain if we don’t have to; there’s nothing noble about unnecessary suffering, which he calls “masochistic rather than heroic.”

But if tragedy or loss or devastation comes our way and there’s nothing we can do to change the situation, we still have a choice.

We can look for opportunities to transcend the wretchedness of our conditions, to turn tragedy into triumph — even if only in the smallest, most personal ways.

Nothing that happens to us takes away our freedom and our responsibility to choose our attitude.

Right now, my world is not falling around my ears

Odds are that neither is yours. It’s a safe assumption that anyone reading this is not huddled in the rubble of Gaza, or scrabbling an existence in a refugee camp in Syria, or watching their children starve in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But we know such things are happening, to people just like us. The movie Civil War alerts us to the real and present danger that America is on a knife’s edge, poised between maintaining our role as the nation that offers its help to countries in distress or plunging into the misery of internal warfare.

Neither outcome is inevitable. All of us who are capable are faced with a choice: to pretend none of this is happening, or to do whatever we can to build the future we hope to see.

We can volunteer. We can vote. We can listen to others without condemning their differences from whatever we’re comfortable with.

And if the worst happens, we can bear witness. Because life, as Viktor Frankl maintains, has meaning and always will. If we can find that meaning, no matter what is happening to us, at some level we can not only survive but triumph.

As James Baldwin, who certainly knew something about encountering the worst impulses of mankind wrote:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Go see Civil War. Emerge disturbed but determined. Take whatever action you can to keep that grim vision of our very near future from coming true.

Can we do that? I am tragically optimistic.

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