It’s been ten days now since the tragic death of Jenna Morrison and her unborn baby. We in Toronto who care about our city and our fellow citizens (not just those of us who are cyclists) are asking what her death means for us. There are many ways to mourn and memorialize a death, but the greatest challenge is to try to give an unnecessary death meaning.
What does it mean to say that Jenna’s death was tragic? Allow me a short meditation on tragedy. Aristotle explains in his poetics that the purpose of tragedy is to show an individual’s stubborn attempts to push their own will and their own wishes, even where these conflict with the norms of society. In the process, they discover what it is about society that can be changed, and what cannot. The unchangeable presents itself as fate, decided upon by the gods; the changeable is shown to be made by humans. The tragic figure tests the boundary between unchangeable fate and the changeable world. He or she always goes one step too far down this path, until they reach the point where they finally recognize that they have challenged fate, and cannot win. The audience watches as this drama plays out, feels the anguish of the person who knows they cannot achieve all they wanted to achieve, and sees them suffer and die. Then they go home knowing that their world is secure and safe, that it cannot be shaken by the willful fancies of a single person.
Jenna Morrison was not challenging fate, but she died challenging the norms of our society. These norms require the lives of citizens to be constructed around the domination of the internal combustion engine. But this is not something that was decreed by the gods, something that must remain unchallenged. It is not our fate to live in a world dominated by automobiles and the oil industry, it is our collective choice. It is something that can be changed. Jenna was trying to live her life in a hostile environment made by humans. If we are to draw the full consequences of what happened, we need to understand just how hostile this environment is to a full and meaningful life. We need to understand too that this environment is not made by fate, but by us, and that it is changeable.