Lady Bracknell: Who were your parents?
Jack: I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.– The Importance of Being Earnest
A List of Things That You Can Lose
- your mind
- your keys
- your phone
- your cool
- your temper
- your heart
- your head
- a limb
- a parent
- a child
- a friend
- your job
- your wallet
- your way
- your spark
- your pride
- your voice
- your pet
- your hair
- your home
- your innocence
- your virginity
- your glasses
- your senses
- your respect for someone
- the remote
- an argument
- your reputation
- a race
- a game
- a bet
- your patience
- your memory
- your train of thought
- a fight
- a court case
It’s mystifying, the number of things we can lose. What an odd quirk of the English language that the verb “lose” can be followed by such an extensive and diverse list of nouns.
How incongruous it is to speak of losing one’s patience and losing one’s innocence. For most people losing weight is cause for celebration, while losing one’s job is cause for alarm. Losing your heart is usually a delightful experience; losing a limb is not. Loss of keys is an annoyance, loss of a child is a tragedy. I will say quite flippantly that I am losing my mind, but a deep down fear of mine is that one day some disease will invade my brain and my mind will literally be lost. And we all know that at some point each one of us will lose what is most precious of all– life itself.
Nobody wants to be called a loser, but we are, all of us. Each of us has, quite literally, everything to lose, and all of us will eventually lose everything. To be human is to live in the shadow of awful vulnerability, every breath we draw and every day that passes haunted by loss. It might be invisible, on a cellular level. There are losses as casual as brushing off a hair that has dropped from your head to your arm. There are the losses that leave you reeling, your whole world shattered. There is no equity or fairness in the distribution of loss among humankind; the only surety is that loss is inevitable.
I had a conversation recently with someone who has been a kindred spirit to me, and at the end of the conversation we both saw that we need to step back from our friendship. There was no bitterness or anger, just a realization that sometimes life is shitty, and sometimes people need space and time for their own emotional health. Yet after the conversation I sobbed. Loss can feel very much like being huddled up in a room in which the walls grow closer and closer together, till you wonder if they are going to squeeze the life out of you. Even after the tears were spent, I felt weary. Losing something (or someone) makes one feel so heavy. How can an absence weigh so much?
As I tried to journal about my feelings, I kept seeing the word loss over and over in my mind. The last two and a half years of my life have been full of loss. I lost my faith and my entire way of looking at life and the world. I lost all sense that being an American is something to be proud of. I lost any remaining hope I had in the Evangelical church. I lost multiple relationships. At one point I felt as though I had lost all control over my life. Sometimes it still feels as though I have lost God– or that God has lost me.
Not all the losses have been bad. I was raised to believe in a hopeless eternal Hell that was God’s judgment against those who rejected him– and losing the belief in and fear of such a hell has been wonderful. I’ve lost my codependency, my fear of the judgment of others, my habit of allowing other people to define me and tell me my value. I’ve lost my shame at having a physical body that needs extra rest and care and gentleness.
But even when losing something is a positive thing, the loss is still an upheaval. Loss shifts everything. If someone loses a limb they have to readjust their expectations of how their life will continue; they will have to modify and change habits and routines to accommodate their new reality. But the same thing must happen even if you lose a toxic relationship or a belief that was stifling you or a fear that was holding you back. Even though you are set free from the bad thing, life is still different. You will have to evolve into a slightly (or majorly) different person because of the loss. And even if your loss is ultimately healing, you may still mourn what might have been.
I wonder if the more advanced societies become in their technology and abilities, the less people are able or willing to face up to the inevitability of loss. Only four or five generations ago, loss was more accepted as a part of everyday life. Humanity didn’t have the kind of medical and scientific knowledge that has allowed us first-world people of the twenty-first century to push the grim specter of loss to the very edges of our consciousness. Now we can insulate ourselves from it so we think about it as little as possible. If we speak of it at all, we speak of loss in low, uncomfortable voices, and death, the ultimate loss, we try to confine to nursing homes and hospitals. We have to turn to books and experts to learn how to explain such concepts to our children, because they are no longer part of the environment we’ve created for ourselves.
I grew up in a strain of religion in which I was taught that pain and loss were the tools God used to sanctify his people. Your small group or Bible study or Sunday school class might not have expected you to be happy that you lost your job, but you at least needed to put on a good face and say that you were “looking forward to seeing what God had in store for you”, or that you were “trusting God to provide for you”. The loss of a romantic relationship was an opportunity to “fall more in love with Jesus.” Loss of a dream meant that God was showing you his will for your life and you needed to be content with it.
Loss was a chance to show your holy stoicism, because you depended on God, not on people or things. Some losses were even to be welcomed. As a teenager I prayed earnestly that I would “lose myself” in God and for God. I didn’t know what I meant by that, but I had a vague idea of being prepared to give up anything– even the very things that made me myself– if God wanted me to. “But what things were gain to me, I count as loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, writes the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3: 7-9. If gain is loss, I thought, then it follows that loss is gain.
But when loss was just an opportunity for me to be sanctified, I had to tamp down my anger, my woundedness, my bitterness, my doubt, and my despair, and paint over it a face of passive endurance and acceptance of “God’s will.” Because somehow, being holy meant being imperturbable. The religious system that tried to teach me the purpose of loss ended up stripping me– and many like me– of the language and the emotions I needed when confronted with loss.
If being a human means being a loser, then the instinctive and natural reactions to loss aren’t something to be repressed or dismissed. Someone who doesn’t mourn is someone who doesn’t love. “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” C.S. Lewis famously wrote. If loss leaves us unmoved, it is not because we have become more holy, more pious, or closer to God. It is because we have become less human– something colder, something more “impenetrable, irredeemable.” When we try to purge our thoughts of the inevitability of loss, or try to purge ourselves of the full emotional experience of loss, we are robbing ourselves.
Imagine a human life is like a self-portrait. I start as a crude sketch or a faceless outline. As I grow and learn and have experiences, the shape of my face and contours of my body in the portrait grow more distinct. As I develop my personality, color is added to the painting and I become recognizable, though the portrait still lacks depth. In facing loss– both my own, and that of others– I have the opportunity to add the depth that will bring my self-portrait vividly to life. Loss can have the opposite effect, of course– I can choose to recede, to grow colder, dimmer, till my portrait is more like a caricature. Or I can choose to become more real, more human. I can allow loss to push me towards love, compassion, empathy, and kindness.
I don’t know know why we live in a world of loss. I’m not certain what I believe, or what I want to believe, about the “why” of pain, suffering, and death, and what role the Divine has in it. But I’m damn certain that I don’t want to ignore loss, or downplay it, or swath myself in stoicism. In the shadow of inevitable loss, I want to live my life to the fullest, and I don’t mean in the sense of scuba-diving in Hawaii or climbing Mount Everest. I mean that as I go through my life, I want to hold awareness that all the other lives I brush up against are made of the same fragile, vulnerable stuff as mine is. The most profound and deep and beautiful people I have known in my life are those who have had their lives molded by loss, and found a path through the anger and despair to an empathy and compassion which would not have been possible had they not accepted the darker feelings first. I want to be like them. I want to be someone who can embrace her own humanity when loss occurs, and doubt and rage and weep. And I want to make it safe for other people to be fully human, whether that means catching their tears or listening to their anger or dressing their wounds or just sitting, at a distance, quietly holding them in my heart.