Helping Young Adults Examine Existential Questions Through Literature: The Tragedy Paper

DSC 0020 - Helping Young Adults Examine Existential Questions Through Literature: The Tragedy Paper
Elizabeth LeBan. Photo by John Creveling.

As parents, grandparents, teachers, and therapists, we may find ourselves asking what the best way is to approach “existential questions” with young people? What is the best way for us to get a glimpse of the “existential dilemmas” they face in their young lives? How can we learn the thought processes they may go through in trying to make the best decisions?

Teens may be reluctant to talk about what is on their minds to parents and other adults—for good reason. They are trying to figure out who they are, what they think, and navigate a world that adults know is filled with peril. Do they really want to share what is happening in their world with adults who might, despite all good intentions, offer advice and “tell them what to do?”

Perhaps an alternative to talking with young people about the life challenges they face is to talk about challenges others face—in life and in literature. Then discussions can evolve into, “What would you do if you were in that position?” “Why?” “What was at stake?” The Tragedy Paper, a recently-published novel for young adults (age 12 and up) by Elizabeth La Ban, provides a rich opportunity for adults and younger adults to read and then discuss existential issues.

The Tragedy Paper is a coming-of-age story about two young men—each trying to find out who he is, how to fit in, and experiencing love for the first time. In this dual narrative, Tim, who graduated from boarding school the year before, tells his story to Duncan, the senior who inherits his room. Early in the novel, the reader learns a tragedy had occurred the school year before. Elizabeth La Ban keeps the reader “hooked” because we want to find out what happened in the past, what will happen next, and what will happen in the future.

An interesting “backdrop” to the story is The Tragedy Paper—the senior thesis requiring students to define tragedy (in life and drama) and explore concepts such as pity and fear, error of judgment, tragic flaw, order, chaos, magnitude and other concepts that accompany tragedy. Tim and Duncan have ample opportunity to consider these concepts when deconstructing the real-life tragedy that occurred.

As parents, teachers, and counselors, we are well aware that tragedies happen. We hope the young people we love and mentor will use their best judgment and make responsible decisions that will keep them out of harm’s way. As adults, we are well aware of the dangers that face young adults today, even though young people may feel they are invincible and immortal. And, even if we know that our children are mature, that they do not drink or text while driving, they do not take drugs or do any other activities that can land them in big trouble, we are aware at any second, lives can change because others may make poor decisions. Even adults can make poor and dangerous decisions!

Reading The Tragedy Paper is an excellent way to explore the following existential questions and themes for ourselves and with young adults.

1.    What is freedom?
2.    What is responsibility?
3.    How do my decisions impact my life now? How might they impact my future? How might they impact others?
4.    What is authenticity?
5.    What is important to me?
6.    What are my values?
7.    How do I choose my friends? Do we have common values?
8.    Do I have the courage to stand on my own or, do I do what is necessary to “fit in”?
9.    What are my gifts?
10.  Why is it important for me to value and take care of myself?

While this is a “coming-of-age” story, if we continue to grow as individuals we are “coming of age” all the time—we hope our maturity advances as our age increases. Elizabeth La Ban’s The Tragedy Paper speaks to readers of all ages who ponder important questions about life and how to live it.

La Ban, E. (2013). The tragedy paper. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

— Christina Robertson

Read more stories by Christina Robertson

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