When I lived in Berkeley during the summer of 1967 the entire USA seemed to be speculating about the secret behind the radio hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” a new song by Bobbie Gentry. The lyric tells of the suicide of a young man who jumps from a bridge, though the song provides only a series of tantalizing clues about what happened, and nothing of why. As a boy of thirteen, I hardly understood how serious this was, though it certainly intrigued me.
Even at that age, I recognized that when you have recently suffered a major loss, words intended to comfort you, reassure, or cheer you up are not likely to help.
Then in 1976, a film called Ode to Billy Joe, inspired by Bobbie Gentry’s song was released, and it proved a genuine tear-jerker. When I saw the film at age twenty-two, I admired its visual and emotional realism, and the beauty and sincerity of the young protagonists, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee. Only, not until recently was I able to view the film again, on DVD. After nearly forty years, I find appreciate this beautiful film and its nuances as I never could before.
For some critics, the uncertainties of the song proved more evocative and haunting, while the film and the detailed revelation of what happened and why, did not prove so satisfying. Personally, I appreciated the film’s sweating, believable Southern characters, the drone of the cicadas in the Mississippi heat, the excellent dialogue, and the tragic tangle of events. I admired how the young heroine endures her terrible loss.
Unlike the song, the revelations of the film are not ambiguous. Yet no matter how much information we may have about the loss of any person, we can never know the bottom line. The ultimate “why?” cannot truly be answered, even with apparent motivation and circumstances. The complexity and subtle nature of human experience renders any simple, linear cause-and-effect explanation no more than a rationalized emotional placebo. The truth of our existence is profoundly mysterious.
Though I have had a near-death experience (NDE), went to the “Other Side” and returned, I am not convinced of what that really means. Concerning life after death and before birth, I am agnostic. What I believe in is life. Still, human experience demonstrates that loved ones who pass on may sometimes return to comfort their survivors, or finish some interrupted business. To doubt that this happens, in my opinion, takes skepticism too far, and dishonors the meaningful experience of a great many human beings.
My belief is that mortality is mysterious, that nobody knows for sure what, if anything, happens to our consciousness after we die, or where we come from “before birth.” In the sense of our evolving DNA and the stardust of which it’s composed, it seems we’ve all been around in some form, all along and always will be. For insight, Nature is always the best source, and if you observe what’s happening in a forest, everything is recycling, all the time.
Of course, grief can be caused not only by death of a loved one, but also by the end of a relationship, or by anything you consider a terrible failure, a betrayal, the loss of a beloved home, or a serious health diagnosis.
So, what do we learn from tragic loss, in both fiction and our human lives?
You can never afford to take anything that you love in your life for granted, not for a moment. Cherish what you love, here and now: always. So easily we focus on the past, on what we do not have, and may overlook the good things that are present.
In fiction, tragedy adds the depth of realism to human experience, and produces change in the survivors, motivation, or shifts of direction in plot and story, and character development. The fictional Billy Joe, and his remarkable survivor Bobbie Lee have helped me to clarify my feelings about these realities in my own life.
In life, nothing can mitigate the impact of a tragic loss, though certain beliefs may provide a buffer from the harsh realities. In fiction, the portrayal of loss has an ancient pedigree that goes back at least five or six millennia to Gilgamesh and his lost Enkidu, yet it still provides no definitive answers.