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I was surprised when a friend I’ve known virtually from the day I was born, who is now a frequent reviewer for several leading newspapers, urged me to see the Rachel McAdams’s vehicle Mary Jane, now appearing on Broadway. The play focuses on a single mother who lives in Queens with her severely disabled two-and-a-half-year old.

The child, who requires round-the-clock care, was born 15 weeks prematurely and soon after experienced bleeding in the brain. The child, Alex, suffers from cerebral palsy and a lung disorder. He undergoes recurrent seizures, is incapable of vocalizing, and must be tube-fed.

Abandoned by her husband shortly after the child’s birth, Mary Jane, the mother, retains a rather chipper optimism in the face of challenges that most of us, I suspect, would find unbearable.

Yet, while the play is emotionally heavy, and focuses on some of life’s most painful aspects without offering any significant moments of hope or reprieve or emotional relief, it is not a “downer.” It doesn’t leave the audience feeling despondent, but, rather, encourages deep reflection and empathy.

Yes, the play will leave you emotionally drained. Yes, the play’s overall tone is pessimistic and sorrowful. Certainly, the play offers no hope for redemption, humor or relief, and lacks moments of joy, triumph, uplift or light-heartedness that could balance the heavy themes. Nor does Mary Jane, the title character, experience any positive growth by the play’s end, or find any peace, healing, or closure.

The play challenges the audience to confront difficult truths and emotions, and a deeper understanding of the human predicament. But it does not provide catharsis or emotional release.

Why, then, has the play attracted a large, primarily female, audience, and elicited enthusiastic reviews?

In part, because it addresses a series of existential issues that are among philosophy and theology’s oldest—in a human, not a pedantic or didactic, way. One such issue, often treated as a cliché, is why awful things happen to good people. The play underscores the randomness of suffering and the lack of a clear reason why good people, like the mother and her infant, experience profound hardship and pain.  

Rather than offering the audience a positive narrative arc, from despair and anger to acceptance and resilience, the play focuses instead on the mother’s extraordinary determination. The play also emphasizes the role of a supportive community of women. Their collective strength provides emotional, practical and moral support, and helps the mother traverse her difficult journey.

The play also asks whether religious faith can make suffering more bearable. Toward the play’s end, the mother encounters a Buddhist chaplain and an orthodox Jewish mother. In neither case do spiritual beliefs offer solace or give a larger meaning to a child’s suffering. But the orthodox Jewish woman does say that her religious community does provide her with essential emotional support. 

This is not a play that treats rage or anger or doubt as an appropriate response to suffering or tragedy. Instead, it emphasizes optimism and acceptance as valid and necessary responses.

In addition, the play exposes an uneasy tension within the medical system between providing compassionate care and comfort and delivering raw, unvarnished truth. The play illustrates the challenges medical professionals face in balancing honesty with empathy and how families deal with the disturbing messages that they receive from physicians who try not to encourage false hopes.

At the play’s heart is an exploration of the depth and strength of a mother’s love, and her unwavering, self-sacrificing commitment to her child’s well-being despite the overwhelming challenges. Mary Jane finds strength and resilience through her dedication and caring—and also through the collective support she receives from the community of women that surround her.

The play implicitly contrasts this nurturing approach to the more individualistic, more “masculine” approach that emphasizes stoicism, personal strength and a solution-focused mindset. The play suggests that a collaborative, compassionate approach that stresses empathy, solidarity and shared strength can be more effective and fulfilling in navigating life’s most challenging moments.

The play ends abruptly and ambiguously, with an oblique and somewhat confusing reference to fractals. Fractals, as you perhaps know, are complex geometric shapes that recur at various scales. First identified and defined by the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot in 1975, fractals can be found throughout nature as well as in mathematical theory. The term also has a symbolic meaning and symbolizes certain profound concepts.

What do fractals symbolize or represent in the play? What do they have to say in a work about suffering and tragedy?

For one thing, fractals represent the coexistence of complexity and order. Despite their intricate patterns, they are generated by simple mathematical rules. Fractals symbolize how complex phenomena, such as human experiences or natural processes, can arise from simple underlying principles.

Fractals also illustrate the concept of infinity within finite boundaries. They represent the infinite possibilities or the endless depth of certain phenomena, such as the human psyche or the universe.

Fractals also allude to the interconnectedness of parts to the whole. They represent how individual experiences or events can be a part of a larger, interconnected reality.

Fractals are found in many natural forms that demonstrate resilience and adaptability, such as the branching of trees or blood vessels. This can symbolize the ability to adapt and persist through adversity.

The play’s reference to fractals also symbolizes the endless complexity of human emotions and experiences. Just as fractals have infinite layers of detail, human suffering can have intricate dimensions that are not immediately apparent.

In addition, fractals represent the patterns that emerge in the midst of chaos. In the context of a play, this shows how patterns of behavior, societal structures or even genetic predispositions contribute to repeated cycles of suffering and tragedy.

The infinite nature of fractals also symbolizes the layered nature of pain and healing. Each layer of suffering reveals new depths of pain, and, conversely, new opportunities for understanding and healing. For beneath the surface of visible suffering, there are deeper, often hidden, layers of pain and resilience. 

Perhaps most importantly, fractals illustrate the interconnectedness of individual and collective suffering. The suffering of one character is intertwined with the fates of others, reflecting the fractal nature of their experiences. Personal tragedies might mirror broader societal issues, suggesting that individual experiences of pain are part of a larger human condition.  

But fractals can also symbolize hope and resilience. Despite the complexity and seeming chaos, there is an underlying order and beauty. This could imply that there is meaning and potential for growth even in the midst of suffering.

By drawing on the rich symbolism of fractals, the play offers profound insights into the nature of suffering and the ways individuals and communities adapt and cope and endure despite the pain they experience.  

It will come as no surprise to learn that Mary Jane’s playwright, Amy Herzog, who won the 2012 Obie Award for best new American play, has herself lived through tragedy. Her daughter Frances was born with nemaline myopathy, a rare muscular disorder, and died at age of 11.

Let me conclude with two points that I think deserve some discussion. First, much of Western culture’s philosophical and theological discussion of tragedy does reflect what I’d call a masculinist bias.

Consider the dominant perspectives, beginning with the Epicurean paradox. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus famously formulated the problem of evil: If God is willing to prevent evil but not able, He is not omnipotent; if He is able but not willing, He is malevolent; if He is both able and willing, whence then is evil? This paradox challenges the coexistence of a benevolent, all-powerful deity with the presence and prevalence of suffering.

The Biblical Book of Job addresses undeserved suffering. Job, a righteous man, endures profound suffering without clear reason. The narrative concludes with God affirming divine wisdom and the inscrutability of His plans. This perspective emphasizes faith and trust in God’s greater wisdom, even when suffering seems inexplicable.

Augustine, in turn, attributed suffering to the Fall of Man. Humanity’s original sin brought corruption and suffering into the world, including the birth of children with disabilities. But suffering, according to Augustine could ultimately be redemptive, resulting from an openness to God’s grace.

Then, there’s Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who argued that our world, despite its suffering and evil, is the best of all possible worlds that God could have created. Every event, including the birth of a child with disabilities, fits into a greater, ultimately good divine plan. This view seems to justify suffering without providing comfort to those who experience it.

The British philosopher of religion and theologian John Hick proposed that suffering and evil serve as challenges that contribute to soul-making, the development of moral and spiritual virtues. A child born with disabilities might, in turn, prompt profound love, empathy and growth in those around them.

Process theologians such as Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne view God not as omnipotent in the classical sense but as a dynamic being who works with creation toward goodness. Disabilities and suffering are seen as part of the evolving process of creation. This approach emphasizes God's empathy and involvement in the suffering of the world, offering comfort through divine solidarity rather than omnipotent intervention.

Then, there’s Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People suggests that God does not cause suffering but offers comfort and strength to endure it. He emphasizes a God who cares and supports rather than who controls every aspect of life. Kushner also highlights the role of human agency in alleviating suffering and improving conditions for those with disabilities.

The alternative to these “masculinist” perspectives is an approach that underscores the need for empathy, support, solidarity and a deeper understanding of human suffering.

Second, American society tends to evade, soften and deny the reality of tragedy, reflecting certain cultural tendencies and societal norms that influence how people process and respond to difficult or tragic events. Among the factors that contribute to the evasion or softening of tragedy is the culture’s strong emphasis on positive thinking and the importance of maintaining a hopeful outlook. Dwelling on negative events or emotions, we repeatedly hear, is counterproductive. The notion that anyone can achieve their goals through hard work and determination also tends to downplay or overlook the harsh realities and setbacks that people face.

This society’s popular media and entertainment certainly favor stories with happy endings or resolutions that provide closure and satisfaction. This preference shapes public expectations and attitudes, making it harder to accept and process stories that reflect real-life tragedies without neat resolutions. To avoid alienating audiences, popular entertainment shies away from deeply tragic or uncomfortable subjects, leading to a lack of representation and discussion of genuine tragedies in mainstream culture.

Our historical narratives also contribute to the disavowal of tragedy.  Our stories of American pioneers and the frontier spirit, and of immigrants rising from rags to riches, emphasize resilience, self-reliance, and overcoming adversity and can be empowering, but they also promote the idea that acknowledging weakness or tragedy is a sign of failure. Then, too, post–World War II prosperity entrenched the idea that progress and improvement are constant and inevitable, thus making tragedy seem like an anomaly rather than a normal and expected part of life.

Of course, given this society’s extreme individualism and emphasis on self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, admitting to experiencing or being affected by tragedy can be seen as a failure to maintain control or independence. There is a stigma associated with vulnerability and emotional expression, especially in contexts that require stoicism or strength. This can discourage people from openly dealing with or discussing tragic events.

One consequence is a tendency toward emotional suppression. To avoid confronting our pain, we may suppress our emotions, leading to unresolved grief and psychological issues such as depression or anxiety. By not acknowledging or addressing tragedy, society may well become less empathetic and less equipped to support those who are suffering. This can result in isolation and a lack of communal support for individuals facing hardship.

While promoting a positive outlook can be beneficial, it can also create a superficial sense of resilience that does not address the deeper emotional and psychological impacts of tragedy. Without proper engagement with tragic events, individuals and communities may lack the coping mechanisms needed to deal with future adversities effectively.

To better deal with tragedy, American society could benefit from:

  • Embracing more balanced cultural narratives that acknowledge both success and failure, joy and sorrow. These narratives might help normalize the experience of tragedy as a natural part of life.
  • Encouraging media and entertainment to depict more nuanced and realistic portrayals of tragedy that can help audiences develop a more mature understanding of adversity. Mary Jane offers an example of the kinds of artistic works this society needs.
  • Embracing college curricula that promote an open dialogue about grief, loss and tragedy to  help destigmatize these experiences and provide students with the tools to process them healthily.
  • Strengthening support systems—including enhanced mental health services, community networks and peer support groups—to provide individuals with the resources they need to cope with and recover from tragic events.

This society’s tendency to evade or soften the reality of tragedy has contributed to a generally positive outlook, but it also hinders Americans’ ability to confront and process tragic events. Only by openly acknowledging and addressing the complexities of tragedy, can this society foster greater empathy, resilience and emotional well-being.

Ours is a society filled with unseen and unhealed wounds. Behind the brave faces lies a lot of hurt and pain. So, let’s move beyond toughness and break through the masks and recognize life’s tragic realities and work to replace traditional stoic ideals with a much more compassionate, empathetic approach.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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