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.
Or so says Elizabeth Bishop is in poem “One Art”. In line after line she builds her case, describing in details the petty things that she loses each day; her keys, a watch, hours of wasted time. But, of course, she famously undos her thesis in the final stanza, revealing that her words were about heartache all along. Her lover has died. This poem is exercise in convincing herself that she can survive this one terrible loss.
How many losses have we suffered in these past two months? Too many to count. Some – the gravest – the loss of a loved one or of life itself. And others – detrimental – the loss of health, employment, housing, or access to social services. With loss comes grief, and with grief comes anger. Bishop, like Dylan Thomas before her, owns her anger on the edge of every word.
In recent days, I have heard expressions of increasing anger, though, over less grave or detrimental things. The protests against sheltering-in-place are not only in middle America. Here, in Sonoma County, I have heard people suggest that COVID-19 is not as dangerous as first though or, if it is, perhaps it is worth sacrificing other lives for the sake of our own liberties. It is bizarre. I have heard more anger over the the closure of churches, public parks, and salons than I have over unemployment or financial ruin.
It is difficult not to compare loss to loss. My own glib tenancies have caused me to assume that these anti-sheltering-in-place protestors have not lost family members to COVID-19, and then, more bitterly, to wonder who in their own lives they would be willing to sacrifice for the sake of a haircut.
But such an exercise, while righteously satisfying, is effectively useless. Because, of course, I, too, would like a haircut. Of course, I, too, would like to hike in a public park. I feel the loss of these pleasures, like countless other things. And if I am not up in arms right now, it is not because I am better than those who are. It may simply be because I’ve had the opportunity to practice the art of losing.
Just in the past few years, I have lost my own health to chronic nerve pain, and I have lost a beloved grandmother, a loyal dog, and a dear friend in death. These losses do not compare to the small losses I – and many others – suffer now, nor do they need to. When we give up pitting one loss against each other, we can live into the deepest truth of Bishop’s poem. The art of losing all of these things – from car keys to lovers – is, after all, “one art”. And it is an art I have had the opportunity to practice. I have had many, many people in my life who have listened to my sorrows, offering comfort that is free from platitudes. I have learned from wise elders how to sit in my grief, and allow myself to feel the depth of each loss.
And so, it is not to say that those who are most bent out of shape about the loss of daily things have not lost the greater things. I simply wonder if all of this hostility and self-centeredness stems from America’s inability to practice the art of losing. When, oh, when, has the United States ever willingly admitted a loss? (The war in Afghanistan is just one example). So then, how can we admit to the losses we experience as individual citizens?
This national psychosis has impacted many a familial experienceHow many of us grew up with our parents saying, “Don’t cry”? How many of us have practiced – for years and years – eating, sleeping, working, or pushing our feelings of sadness away? Rather than, actually feeling the feelings that we feel? That is the art of avoiding – an art form I see so clearly practiced by these protestors who are putting themselves, and others, at risk.
The art of losing is much more difficult to master.
And so, sometimes, we simply must begin with the most basic of lessons. I am reminded of how, once, long before social distancing, I was out on a hike, and other another hiker became quite angry with me for “walking too loud” and “scaring away” the bird she was admiring. I happened to be in a generous mood that day, so, I told her that must have been disappointing. And after apologizing, I asked her to describe the bird that I had startled. At first, she could only voice her irritation, but eventually, she shared with that her husband had died not too long before. She usually hiked with him.
The art of losing is hard to master, and we never master the art until we get to the heart of what we are grieving. What have you lost lately? For me, I have lost sleep. I have stayed up late some nights; worried about that which is serious and that which is not. I have lost routine. I have lost the opportunity to gather with the people and communities I love. If I am to practice the art of losing, then I need acknowledge that loss is a part of living, and I need to feel the loss of these things, rather than the run from the sadness I am feeling.
It is good and right to grieve what you have lost in this – however big or small. This is especially true if you have not grieved previous losses fully. It takes time – that’s why we need to practice. And it may look different for everyone. You may need to journal or sing or walk or talk your way through it. That’s what makes losing an art.