The Paradox of Loss

The Paradox of Loss

Every human life brings myriad forms of loss and disappointment, yearnings that are left unsatisfied, pieces of us that fall away never to be returned, hopes that are dashed and ideals that fall by the wayside. To live in the material world as mortal beings is to be in a perpetual state of loss, of course. The question is, can we lose with grace and recognize that loss is grace, too? What are you most afraid of losing?

There’s a strange account of a woman who told a terrible story about her life to the great Indian saint, Anandamayi Ma. After hearing her painful tale, Ma turned to her, apparently, and began to laugh until tears were flowing down her face. The woman was shocked and asked why this saint was laughing at her misery. “Because you are being shown the end of misery through the cracks that this misery is opening in your heart,” said Anandamayi Ma. “Through them you can see the sun of the Self shining.”

When loss happens, in other words, and a crack appears between who you were and what you had, and who you have become, this loss can be taken to mean bad luck, failure, and betrayal by God, or as a chance at redefinition, possibility, choice, and surprise. Loss can register as tragedy, as something that shouldn’t have happened, or as a spiritual reminder not to attach completely to what is never ours to keep.

When we live this way, with an awareness of endings, not only do we not avoid the cracks and gaps, shielding our eyes from truth, we learn to live inside the cracks themselves, to inhabit the in-between place between certainty and mystery, the zone of not knowing, which is where life really happens. Instead of struggling to protect ourselves from loss and change, we come to embody change, to live and breathe loss as part of our normal experience. Anandamayi Ma used to tell her followers to live like birds on a dry branch, knowing that at any moment the branch could snap. Scary as this sounds, living with an awareness of fragility actually makes us more secure than pretending that the branch is stronger than it is. When we inhabit this in-between liminal space, we realize that when the branch snaps (or when we lose what we love), it will not be a tragedy. Although the things of the world may be lost, the quality that Emily Dickinson called “the thing with feathers,” will remain what it is. The branch will snap, but that doesn’t change us. Who we are cannot be taken away.

In the same way that an artist sees white space as freedom, the spiritual seeker recognizes that loss is always a new beginning. Not in a Pollyanna sense of, “Oh, isn’t it great that everything is doomed,” but in an enlightened, creative sense. This requires that we cultivate a taste for not knowing, a taste for mystery, for change, for surrender, for letting go. As seekers, we recognize the enormous, counter-intuitive value of disappointment, disillusionment, and so-called failure as reminders of what is real and what is not, what can be counted on and what is transient. We know that without dukkha—the gap between desire and lasting satisfaction— there can be no spiritual flowering, as an artist knows that without empty space there can be no creative achievement.

What are you most afraid of losing? That’s the question. What losses do you imagine would rob you of your identity? I like to think of this problem as similar to taking apart a ballpoint pen. First, you unscrew the casing and pull out the nub and then you take out the ink tube. At what point does the pen cease to be a pen? What is a pen anyway, you come to wonder? What is a human being? The non-dual masters put this query in the form of another question: Who am I? When a student came to Ramana Maharshi with this query, the master of Arunachala was succinct.

“The gross body I am not. The five cognitive sense organs I am not. The organs of speech, locomotion, grasping, excretion, and procreation I am not. The five vital airs I am not. Even the mind that thinks, I am not.” The student asked, “Well, if I am none of these, then who am I?” The Maharshi replied, “After negating all of the above mentioned as ‘not this, not that,’ the awareness that alone remains: that I am.”

The majority of us do not live with this level of equanimity, of course. For us, the question is how to live with ultimate loss as frightened, grasping human beings a few meters short of absolute wisdom. One answer is to recognize that the same range of feelings attends every major loss if you look at it closely. Though losses are unique, too—losing a loved one is not the same as losing a job, which is not the same as losing a breast, which is not the same as losing a home or political freedom—all bring with them a similar volley of emotions that add up to a sickening, visceral sense of having had a part of yourself torn away, a gap left inside you, a hole, a void. When this aperture of loss gets torn open, it’s like feeling the outside on the inside, as if the chaos that exists outside the walls of the imagined, separate self, comes rushing into our safe space; as if our identity has sprung a leak and we are sinking. That’s what loss feels like: sinking, disappearing, ceasing to have power, not knowing what to trust, reaching and failing to lay hands on a solid sense of who we were before this loss occurred.

When we recognize this sameness in loss, and understand it, intimately, as woven into the fabric of who we are, it’s possible to rest in that in-between place of not knowing where life truly happens. When we find that balance point, we come to know, without question, that we are equal to our losses. Knowing that who you are—what you are—is strong enough for what awaits you is a watershed moment in life. We can finally be completely grateful. A friend of mine who almost died from cancer puts it this way. “If life really is a gift,” says Jim, “then the appropriate response is “Thank you.’” Not “Yeah, but…” or “Poor me,” or, “I’ll be happy if nothing changes.” Just thank you, full stop, knowing that you have nothing to lose.

Mark Matousek
Mark Matousek

Mark Matousek is the author of two award-winning memoirs, Sex Death, Enlightenment: A True Story (an international bestseller) and The Boy He Left Behind: A Man's Search For His Lost Father (Los Angeles Times Discovery Book), as well as When You're Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living and Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life. A featured blogger for Psychology Today, Purple Clover, Huffington Post, he has contributed to numerous anthologies and publications including The New Yorker, O: The Oprah Magazine (contributing editor), The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Yoga Journal, Details, The Saturday Evening Post, AARP, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and many others. A popular lecturer and writing teacher, he is the Creative Director of V-Men (with Eve Ensler), an organization devoted to ending violence against women and girls. His latest book is Ethical Wisdom for Friends. Join him at