Tragic Vision: Meditations of a Midlife Adolescent

One of the pivotal changes in my recognition of needing to grow up took place in the unlikliest of settings.  In the Fall of 2010, my wife and I went to visit our oldest son for Parents’ Weekend at The King’s College in New York City.  I attended a lecture given by Dr. Anthony Bradley.  The big idea of this lecture was that our assumptions about the nature of humanity every aspect of our worldview.  In other words, “bad anthropology yields disastrous results.”

The portion that was really eye-opening for me was when he introduced a book by Thomas Sowell called A Conflict of Visions.  Dr. Sowell describes “visions” as basic beliefs.  They are paradigms, ways of seeing, overall “grids” in the way that we perceive data and events , perhaps even below the conscious level.

Dr. Sowell noticed that people whom we might call “liberals” and “conservatives” tend to talk past one another.  He attributes this to “a conflict of visions.”  The two fundamental visions that Dr. Sowell expounds upon are the “tragic,” or “constrained” vision, and the “unconstrained” vision.

The main factor that drives the tragic vision is the recognition of human limitations. One could describe these limitations as limitations of ability and limitations of morality.  It is the recognition that humanity is not omnipotent nor omniscient nor omnicompetent.  While this does not rule out advances in innovation, discovery, technology, and civilization, it does recognize that there are some things that will not be able to be done.  Ever try running a one minute mile?  Eliminating poverty?  Making wars to cease?  It is the assumption that all of the scenarios are complex problems, so much so that we may not even be able to identify all of the variables inherent in them, much less solve them.   The recognition of having limits of morality assumes that human beings are fundamentally selfish organisms.  We do not naturally incline toward virtue.  It is a Hobbesian view of man in the state of nature, of which he said, “life is nasty brutish, and short.”

Now, this may sound like a morbid understanding of human nature.  However, for me, it was positively liberating.  While my outlook on life was previously anchored in the tragic vision, I previously did not see the implications of this.  Because of this, I was always looking for “the perfect solution for every problem.”  I was striving for the “perfect career fit.”       This discovery also freed me from the tyranny of perfectionism and made me a better evaluator of changes that I contemplate, both in my personal life and in my vocation  The tragic vision insists that there are no “perfect solutions” and “perfect fits” from East of Eden to the New Jerusalem.  All “solutions” and “fixes” involve trade-offs and unintended consequences.  This is not to say that one ought not to take risks.  But it is to focus attention on the processes inherent in living, and to put our trust in wise processes rather than ephemeral products.

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