Woody Allen, who - believe me - I am loath to quote, snuck a line into "Crimes and Misdemeanors" which I have remembered since the day I heard it seven years ago. It's not so much a quote as a formula, I suppose, which makes it a little more memorable. In the film, the line is read by Alan Alda - another good reason to remember it. Alda says, "comedy is just tragedy <dramatic pause> plus time" or "(C)omedy = (T)ragedy + (t)ime" for the mathematicians among us.
I've chewed on this quote a good seven years, and still it strikes an ambivalent chord inside of me. Simplified, it looks like little more than Woody Allen coopting a far older adage: "Time heals all wounds." Insofar as that's the case, I largely agree with the sentiment. It's been my experience that nothing gets me on the mend better than time. It's always a factor in my recovery no matter how intractable the wound appears. And time is available over-the-counter, too!
But I am still troubled by the formula "C = T + t," especially by its claim on mathematical certainty. I stumble over the rule when I look at its converse. Is "(T)ragedy = (C)omedy - (t)ime" equally true? Is a tragedy just a laughing matter we haven't had time to fully appreciate? That thought sure makes me nervous.
As I look at the so-called tragedies of my life, which, frankly, have been relatively minor, I still have a hard time laughing at them. Yes, I've done plenty of ridiculous things that felt like the end of the world when they happened but faded into satirical farce with age. But there's still quite a bit that defies comedy.
A far more likely explanation is that tragedy doesn't become comedy, but comedy subdues tragedy. Chris Duff, a sea kayaker and every bit as unlikely a source of wisdom as Woody Allen, writes about this phenomenon in his book, On Celtic Tides, a log of his circumnavigation of Ireland. He notes how "time has a way of erasing hardship and coloring memories with sunny days and the promise of adventure." Tragedy doesn't disappear so much as we paint over it - and with brighter colors and broader, more confident strokes. That idea I like not only because it's more true to my experience, but also because it's thoroughly Irish!