Welcome to Day 17 of 31 Days of Kissing the Wounds, a month of posts about the beauty, longing, and soul inherent in our damaged selves; in the world’s brokenness; in the imperfection, incompleteness, and transience of all that we love; in our recognition of each other as the walking wounded; and in the jagged, messy, splintery, deformed, sullied, unhealed parts of me, you, the natural world, our communities, the culture. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others.
“Maybe it was always simple:
Loss surrounds us.
Who would deny it?
We ourselves are loss, are lost.”
— Gregory Orr, from “You might think”
You might well think that we ourselves are loss, are lost.
We know, when we let ourselves know, that nothing in this mortal world lasts.
At a basic level, we fear an existential loss, the annihilation of our self, at least of our body and our mind/personality. Our identity, our idea of who “I am,” is always being impinged on by the world, and when we are in touch with the nature of reality, we also know that at some point, our personality (which we have crafted so carefully and with such attachment to it as a representation of “me”), will no longer exist at all. So on a daily basis, there is an uncertainty about who we are, as our identity — our values, perspective, experience, preferences, goals, desires, method of doing things, etc. — is called into question intentionally or incidentally by others (friends, strangers, the media — anyone who does, wants, prefers, believes, or values something different than I do), and then, underlying that, is the relentless ongoing drumbeat (or think of it as “Jaws” music, if you like) of our mortality. It’s inescapable.
Uncertainty — or rather, our wish for certainty in an uncertain world — causes us anxiety and fear. (It’s important to realise that it’s not uncertainty per se that breeds anxiety in us, but our desire for certainty, which is at odds with the way things are.) The future is uncertain, except for one thing: the fact of death (and what happens then is uncertain, even for those who have strong beliefs about an afterlife). That fear of death is the shadow that occupies all our other fears, though we’re not always conscious of it. In fact, most of us try pretty hard not to be conscious of it, which is why we have a hard time staying still, doing nothing, without fidgeting or feeling nervous, because then we might remember that all our motion won’t stop us stopping.
Usually, when we are anxious or fearful, we get the idea that there is something wrong with us, or something wrong with the world, or both. We seem to believe that the natural state of things should be comfort or at least sameness, predictability; but our anxiety and fear about the future just reminds us that uncertainty, transience, unpredictability is actually the natural state of things. We’re not comfortable with fear, because it points to the fact that nothing is certain and nothing lasts.
Fear is fundamentally about loss, and loss is real, because the world is impermanent, always changing. We are going to lose things, and we are going to feel lost. When we are feeling good and things seem to be working well, we fear losing what we (think we) have. Even when things aren’t going great, most of us are well aware that they could be worse — we could lose even more, we could die.
Fear is commonly felt about a future event that is imagined as a loss: physical loss and devastation (medical diagnoses, illness and injury, pain and torture, diminishment of the body, memory loss, loss of control of physical functions, crimes against the body), financial and economic loss, loss of loved ones through death or estrangement, loss of what’s familiar or routine, loss of emotional control, loss of agency (the ability to decide for yourself what to do), environmental degradation and loss of habitat, loss of power over others, and so on.
Even when we are anxious about something that doesn’t seem like a loss, maybe a big event like our happy wedding, usually some kind of loss is involved: in the case of the wedding, it might be loss of face, if I do something embarrassing or awkward like trip on my dress or say the wrong words; or loss of feeling in control, just because I am the object of focused attention, much more so if I burst into tears or laugh inappropriately; or loss of comfort in a relationship, if a friend gets angry at the seating arrangements or divorced parents don’t play well together … and that doesn’t even take into account the losses we might incur during the actual marriage!
Sometimes we try to minimise the fear by saying to ourselves and others that “everything happens for a reason,” which helps us feel that someone with a plan is in control, even though it’s not us. It’s not a bad strategy, in some ways: We are going to endure loss, so may as well reframe it as not-loss, or even as gain. I’m not sure this reframing changes the feeling of loss, though. If your beloved child dies in a terrible way, is it better or easier to handle if you think that this loss is part of a greater, somehow benevolent plan? Maybe it is better for some to imagine it this way. And who knows? Maybe it’s true. The point is, we don’t actually know. And not knowing — not understanding why things happen as they do, why we’re mortal, why bad things happen routinely and randomly (or even when it appears to us as cause-and-effect) — is one of the things we’re anxious about.
So, one of the other strategies we employ in the face of our basic uncertainty is to cling to our developed, constructed sense of who we are. (We’re back to the idea of identity again.) In 2012, theologian Peter Rollins spoke about identity and how we use it as a shield against uncertainty (the original interview, “Belief is Easy,” seems to be no longer available online; this is from my blog posting about it):
“I think there’s a universal problem … that we all seek certainty and we all seek satisfaction. All of us want to have a story that tells us why we on this side of the river are right and those people on that side of the river are wrong. Why we are good and they are bad. We all want a story that tells us why we’re here, where we’re going, and what we should do in the meantime.”
He says that we are told stories by parent that give us a sense of mastery, “a sense of ‘Oh, I’m independent, I’m strong, I’m beautiful,’ and it covers over the fact that they’re dependent, that they don’t really have an understanding of what’s going on in the world. And as we grow, we simply develop these stories, into cultural, political, and religious ones. And they do exactly the same thing. They cover over our unknowing, they cover over our brokenness, they give us a sense of mastery, they tell us that I’m right and they’re wrong. …
Because we want certainty, we love to know why we are here, we love a story that tells us that we’re important, that we have a place, a story that covers over our brokenness, and so selling certainty is easy. Asking people to interrogate their beliefs, to question some of the things that they hold most dearly … that’s difficult. That’s profoundly hard.”
It’s difficult for us to interrogate our beliefs, to question our identity as someone who believes this, values that, prefers this, does things this way instead of that way, etc., because doing so implies that we might as easily hold other beliefs, values, preferences — and then who would we be? The thought that maybe our values and preferences are somewhat arbitrary threatens our sense of ourselves as autonomous, self-determining, solid.
But are we solid? If I were to become blind tomorrow, or if my spouse died tonight, would I be the same person? Or would loss undo me, would loss uncover my shaky sense of self?
“I am made of pieces and of the spaces between them where other pieces used to be. I am a landscape of loss. Most of me is the memory of where else, and who else, and with whom, I have been and no longer am.”– Mark Tredinnick, from “Prologue”
Most of us manage to keep ourselves intact, feeling solid and whole, when life is on a fairly even keel. It’s an easy illusion to maintain when it’s not challenged too much by events or others, although even in relatively “ordinary” (what we think of as ordinary) times, we tend to expend a lot of energy to maintain the illusion, just like living in Wonderland, where “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” As a small example, someone might question why we load the dishwasher this particular way, or why we don’t use a dishwasher but prefer to hand wash, and our urge is to defend our practice, either out loud or at least to ourselves, usually on some noble grounds, because we want to justify our actions, justify ourselves as someone who actually makes independent decisions about what I do rather than simply acknowledge that I tend to do what my parents did, or what my friends do, or what I saw on TV or in a movie, or contrariwise, what my parents didn’t do, what my friends don’t do (“See how I’m different!”). It really doesn’t matter too much what the defense is, just that it’s my conscious choice, something “I” choose, not something I’ve copied, fallen into, rebelled against, etc. This is why how we squeeze the toothpaste tube or load the roll of toilet paper are classic battleground issues for couples: your way of doing it calls into question mine, calls into question my autonomy.
But when times are not “ordinary” anymore but rather unfamiliar, uncomfortable, painful, uncertain, very difficult to understand or endure, then we are most in danger of unraveling. We are in danger of really feeling how tenuous everything is, how out of control we are, how life turns on a dime and the moment before is nothing like the moment after. In those times, we might also really feel how insubstantial we are; we might notice that we don’t have mastery over ourselves or life, that we’re really not certain of much, that we are not as self-determining, independent, and different from others as we think, that we are indeed broken and we are lost.
Even then, though — even then — we tend to find a way to “forget.” We find something to hold onto, something to give us a sense of certainty, permanence, and wholeness, something to ease our anxiety, fear, dissatisfaction, our sense of being broken open, wounded, lost. “Rebound girl” (or boy) is the classic example of how we look to someone else to give us stability, not just to have the (supposed) security of a relationship but to feel like we know who we are again after we lose a partner: It’s easier to feel like me, solidly me, when I have you to compare against.
I’ve quoted Father Richard John Neuhaus before, from the Catholic magazine First Things (Feb. 2000), and here I go again. He’s speaking about bereavement after death, but this could apply to any loss:
“No doubt many people feel they have been helped by formal and informal therapies for bereavement and, if they feel they have been helped, they probably have been helped in some way that is not unimportant. Just being able to get through the day without cracking up is no little thing. But neither, one may suggest, is it the most important thing. … There is a time simply to be present to death — whether one’s own or that of others — without any felt urgencies about doing something about it or getting over it. … The worst thing is not the sorrow or the loss or the heartbreak. Worse is to be encountered by death and not to be changed by the encounter. There are pills we can take to get through the experience, but the danger is that we then do not go through the experience but around it.”
When he was dying and then seemed to be doing better (he has now died), he wrote:
“Everything was shrouded by the thought of death, that I had almost died, that I may still die, that everyone and everything is dying. As much as I was grateful for all the calls and letters, I harbored a secret resentment. These friends who said they were thinking about me and praying for me all the time, I knew they also went shopping and visited their children and tended to their businesses, and there were long times when they were not thinking about me at all. More important, they were forgetting the primordial, overwhelming, indomitable fact: we are dying! Why weren’t they as crushingly impressed by that fact as I was?”
Indeed, why are we not all crushingly impressed all the time?
Perhaps because, as Neuhaus he suggests, it would be hard to get through the day, every day, without cracking up? Perhaps because it would shut out all thought of anything else? Perhaps humans are not meant to dwell on death constantly, and yet, there is something to be said for making friends with death, with being comfortable and familiar with its truth, with the truth that, as Jennifer Welwood says in her amazing poem “Dakini Speaks”: “Look: everything that can be lost, will be lost. / It’s simple – how could we have missed it for so long? / … Let’s not act so betrayed, / As though life had broken her secret promise to us. / Impermanence is life’s only promise to us ….”
It seems worthwhile to me to work with fear, not to rid ourselves of it (fear is very useful in some circumstances) but to face it, to face the fear, the loss, the death that’s inevitable. The Buddhists, of course, have practices for this, one of which involves first, curiosity (asking, what do I fear?); second, a willingness to go where the fear is, a little; and third, a transforming of our response to the feeling of fear, by leaning into it a bit, staying with the feelings of fear and anxiety. There’s also a practice of offering up the very things we’re afraid of losing, in recognition that we never owned these things to begin with.
Whatever the method, I find it helpful from time to time to be aware of the reality that, as Joanna Klink says, below, “being lost means not knowing what it means.” There’s just a lot I don’t know and will never know, about life, the world, the future, you, myself; but I do know, whether I wish to be rooted like grass or to be dissolved like rain, I will be lost.
STARS, SCATTERSTILL. Constellations of people and quiet.
Those nights when nothing catches, nothing also is artless.
I walked for hours in those forests, my legs a canvas of scratches,
trading on the old hopes—we were meant to be lost. But being lost
means not knowing what it means. Inside the meadow is the grass,
rich with darkness. Inside the grass is the wish to be rooted, inside the rain
the wish to dissolve. What you think you live for you may not live for.
One star goes out. One breath lifts inside a crow inside a field.
— from “3 Bewildered Landscapes” by Joanna Klink
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.