“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” – Norman Cousins
“Have the courage to live. Anyone can die.” – Robert Cody
Yes: Have the courage to truly live and love; anyone can die and live a life that looks like a living death.
Life is about loss. Loss—at least some losses in life—are inevitable. And most of us naturally try to live our lives in ways that minimize our losses and our potential for losing the things and people that are important to us. And in doing this, we try to create a sense of permanency, or, put another way, a sense of being in control. If we’re going to have to lose things, we’d much rather lose them on our terms than on life’s terms. We’d much rather have some sense of power, some say in when and how we lose something, rather than experience the complete and utter helplessness and vulnerability of having life simply take what we love away from us, and do so forcibly, and realizing how utterly powerless and helpless and small we are in the scheme of things. We don’t want to be stripped or violated by anyone or anything, including life itself. Yet this is just what life will surely do to each of us so long as we insist on trying to live and love on our own terms instead of life’s.
And so our natural reaction is to fight this, to try to hold on, cling to our desire to be in control, to hold on fiercely to some sense of power and say. And in doing so we run the risk of losing some of our humanity and, what’s worse, becoming inhumane and callous to others.
Loss in life is inevitable. But we’re not humble enough and honest enough to admit this and face this; we’re too afraid to put ourselves through getting acclimated viscerally to this truth. We don’t want to be wounded and scarred like this. Yet think about it: Live long enough and you’ll lose both your parents and all your grandparents, you’ll lose friends, family members, acquaintances. People die. You’ll also lose jobs and loves and friendships, perhaps through your own fault, or perhaps through no fault of your own. But because these losses happen sporadically—”into every life a little rain must fall“—because these losses happen infrequently enough, in between typically much longer stretches of not losing anyone or anything, that allows us plenty of wiggle room in playing our games of denial with ourselves and life. Life—by not defeating us more and more frequently and soundly, by not kicking our butts more and more often and severely—is making it too easy for us to indulge our neurosis (our avoidant tendencies) and play our little games of denial and self-deception and turning away with reality.
“Hear the cry of the woman at the hour of giving birth, see the struggle of the dying in their last minutes and days, and then tell me whether that which begins and that which ends like this has been designed for pleasure.” – Kierkegaard
“One Art” – Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.
“The Man Watching” – Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age;
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we too would become strong, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
Life is about loss. About being defeated more and more decisively. This is the source of our humility–it’s what keeps our ego in check. If we are not being defeated regularly by life–by wrestling with what is extraordinary and eternal in life–we run the risk of becoming soft, spoiled, tepid, weak. Those little victories of little things make us small, we get too comfortable expecting that life will (almost) always take place on our terms, and we get out of shape in terms of the bigger questions and concerns and taking losses in life.
But losses in life are inevitable. And so as such, much of life is really about learning to lose either well or badly. This is the fundamental position we have to decide on in life: to learn how to lose well—with dignity, with some semblance of grace and perspective; or to lose badly—to lose like a child having its favorite toy taken away, to hide away, wall up, feel sorry for ourselves, pitch a fit, spin out, insulate and isolate ourselves, become “control freaks,” and begin shutting down inside and dying while alive—to begin reducing life to survival and staying safe and comfortable (the path of least resistance) rather than growing and enlarging ourselves and learning to live and love on life’s terms.
Everything and everyone will be taken from us. Nothing lasts, nothing will endure; all is vanity. On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everything and everyone drops to zero. In a hundred years, we’ll all be dead. We’re impermanent, brief, fleeting, and fragile—so very fragile. We learn to live and survive alongside what can kill us. This is just the basic lay of the land in life; it’s what we’re each innately up against.
And most of us are not very good sports when it comes to dealing with this. Most of us are not very good sports when it comes to losing. We lose badly. Throw tantrums. Act out. Even become vicious and hurtful—”hurt people hurt people,” they torment others because they are unable and or unwilling to metabolize on their own all of the torment they feel, so they spread it around, literally forcing everyone to feel and mitigate their pain. What it comes down to is this: we’re bad sports because we’re afraid, because we’re not humble, because we have things backwards in life—we expect certainty and security and ease where there is actually little to none. Losing terrifies us, and in doing so, usually brings out what’s worst in us. It reminds us of the truth of our situation—that fundamentally life is about loss, that there’s nothing and no one we can cling to; that life is a perpetual groundlessness: we don’t know why we’re here, or for how long, where we came from, or where we’re going. All we have to use to lessen our fear and terror and sense of helplessness are the stories we’ve been told—some passed down through generations; and the stories we invent and tell ourselves.
Our everyday mind has it all wrong, has it backwards. We think that life is supposed to be much more safe and secure and certain than it is—much more. And that’s what makes us asleep, blind, living in denial—that we have things backwards, that we insist on trying to have things our way when it comes to the big questions—”what is extraordinary and eternal.” We each know at some level what the truth is, but because it terrifies us and because we don’t want to fully feel and face all of that and go through getting acclimated to it, we deceive ourselves and typically hurt others in the process of making our fast getaways from reality. We think that loss should be the exception, not the rule—which may well in fact be the case in the beginning, when we’re young; but as we grow older, we begin experiencing more and more losses, seeing those around us die—grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents. And at some level we begin suspecting that we’ve been duped—that life doesn’t go on forever, there’s a ticking clock—a ticking clock for each and everyone of us—and there’s only so much time on it. And this terrifies us. This terrifies the hell out of us. But this new information, this new reality, comes smack up against what we first learned about life, and so it tends to be very difficult for us to wrap our minds around it and integrate it, because deep down we think—and desperately hope—that life is still supposed to be pleasant and safe and secure and cozy. And we desperately clinging to this hope. Because the alternative is too terrifying. We can’t handle the truth. The truth is too dizzying, too overwhelming, too unsettling. We much rather live badly and live as if permanence and security and happiness are things that are owed to us. We’d much rather believe in a God wants us to be happy, that wants us to have a good time here on earth and not have to suffer. . . .
Does God want us to suffer?
What if the answer to that question is yes?
See, I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy.
I think He wants us to be able to love and be loved.
He wants us to grow up.
We think our childish toys
bring us all the happiness there is
and our nursery is the whole wide world.
But something—something—must drive us out of the nursery
to the world of others
and that something is suffering.
– From the motion picture “Shadowlands”
Wrapping our minds around the inevitability of death and loss is no easy task; it’s like learning a new language—a second language, and at that a very foreign and difficult to master second language. Our first language is one of permanence, security, safety, gratification, being taken care of; it’s what we speak naturally and it speaks to what we seek naturally. This new language, this second language—the linguistics of loss, grief, impermanence, uncertainty, death—conflicts directly and deeply with much of what we first learned of life and with what we most desire from life: happiness, permanence, comfort, pleasantness, goodness. But learning to speak this new language well is essential if we are to grow up and learn how to truly love. Not only that, if one is to truly master this second language—and so to grow and learn how to truly love—it will not be enough just to learn to speak it fluently, we must learn to actually think in it—our very thinking must drip with the language of loss, impermanence, death, suffering. All of this must happen if we are to successfully grow up—i.e., put away the things of childhood, that is, overwrite and replace what we first learned of life—our first impressions of life—that life was supposed to be pleasant and happy and safe, that we weren’t supposed to get broken and deeply wounded here, that we weren’t going to have to change our thinking deeply and radically and fundamentally.
Christianity calls this paradigmatic shift, this complete and irrevocable figure-ground reversal in our way of looking at life—as life being something fleeting, impermanent, transitory, uncertain, mysterious, terrifying, immense, overwhelming, instead of something permanent, cozy, happy, safe—a “metanoia.” A metanoia means a radical change of heart and mind, a dramatic shift of one’s life direction and orientation away from the self and narcissistic gratifications (vanity) and permanence, to impermanence, uncertainty, mystery, transcending the self and our conditioning, and living and loving on life’s terms, not the ego’s terms. It is a complete conversion and epiphany rolled into one.
It is clear that when we are still operating according to the idea that life is supposed to be more safe and secure than it is, that we’re not supposed to be broken and deeply wounded here, that not everyone dies, everyone leaves, everything burns, everything is vanity, then we live badly. We are, in essence, refusing the term’s of life’s loan to us. And when we live like this—in refusal—our power in life lies in distancing—in putting up walls and pushing away unpleasant and difficult and immense realities—and people—and keeping these people and things at arm’s (or more, much more) length. It’s how we feebly try to keep our sanity, our equilibrium—an equilibrium that, truth be told, is not worth keeping, because it comes at the expense of us crippling and warping ourselves; it’s the equilibrium of childhood; it’s one based in weakness and denial, of approaching life in a way that is intellectually dishonest, instead of honest. What we most fear will happen to us will indeed one day happen to us, it will get the upper hand on us, so why wait? Why waste life in the meantime, trying to run from life and reality?
The only real foundation for happiness that we can have in life comes from facing life as it is—in all its majesty as well as hideousness and terrifyingness—and facing ourselves as we are, our weaknesses and strengths, and being honest with ourselves—and others—about these, and then heroically trying to overcome them. The only real happiness in life comes from learning thoroughly that what threatens us or most frightens us yet does not kill us or reduce us to a vegetative state and the fetal position is what makes us stronger and wiser and better human beings. There’s no strength to be gained in avoiding and denying what is inevitable and what will one day have the upper hand on us. In fact, denying what is inevitable its rightful place in our lives is the surest way to cripple ourselves emotionally, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. We must be brave—we really have no choice in this. To only be partially brave means to unwittingly consent to allowing ourselves to be crippled. To only partially face the truth means to still lie to ourselves and others. To grow up means to choose suffering, it means to say YES to life—to the full intensity and mystery of life, the full catastrophe of life, and not live as a frightened pygmy. But to choose safety repeatedly means to say no to life, to say no to growing up, to instead choose a slow form of psychological suicide, a living death, the ego and its fear-based ways over living and loving on life’s terms.
Why love if losing hurts so much?
I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived.
Twice in that life
I’ve been given the choice:
As a boy . . .
and as a man.
The boy chose safety. The man chooses suffering.
The pain now is part of the happiness then.
That’s the deal.
– From the motion picture “Shadowlands”
“There is only one way in which one can endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” – Alan Paton, “The Challenge of Fear,” in Saturday Review, September 9, 1967, pg. 46
“Dungeon” – Rabindranath Tagore
He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon.
I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into
the sky day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.
I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust and sand
lest a least hole should be left in this name;
and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.
“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Dostoevsky
Hell is self-chosen. Hell has only volunteer residents. The reality is that the gates of hell are locked from the inside, as Lewis wrote. Hell is the suffering of being unable—or unwilling—to extend oneself and to love, to paraphrase Dostoevsky. Hell is being trapped from the inside because of oneself inside one’s neurosis or illness and being too afraid to truly love and be loved. It is to be a prisoner, locked within the dungeon of oneself, one’s ego, where the only purpose left in life is to fiercely defend one’s freedom to stay locked inside one’s prison cell. Hell is to be too afraid to risk being vulnerable, open, intimate, to afraid to risk living and loving on life’s terms instead of the ego’s manipulative and self-serving terms. Hell is to prefer the suffering of being unwilling to love to the sufferings involved in loving anything or anyone (after all, they may die or leave you or reject or betray you). Hell is to prefer the sufferings inherent in running away from the full intensity of life and backing down from the full catastrophe of living to the sufferings inherent in living and loving on life’s terms. Hell is to prefer the sufferings and crippling one brings upon oneself rather than the sufferings inherent in waking up and truly living.