“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.”
— Elizabeth Bishop in “One Art”
We are always lost after losing.
I, like anyone else after a loss, always try to busy my mind with fickle passions, future intentions and existential questions. Like a cat who licks and kneads herself obsessively, I’m obsessed with grooming my internal chaos with a sandpaper tongue and carefully sharpened claws.
But more often than not, this grooming behavior results in a deeper sense of sadness, a pessimistic view on life caused by the fear of loss. The fear of loss is a bitter longing that possessions cannot mitigate. This fear is not an anomaly or a symptom of illness; rather, it is a universal and essential experience necessary in our lifetime. The important thing is that, if we must lose one day, we need to conquer this fear and become masters of the art of losing. In fact, the losses we fear the most are not physical, but something in our imagination.
The best example is with love. As we step into adulthood, the waking spring of our troubles is more or less an emotion known as lovesickness. The momentary sense of excitement brought forth by unrealistic fantasies is well insinuated by James Joyce’s short story “Araby.” In “Araby,” a boy longs for a romantic relationship with a girl that he barely knows. But in the end, he realizes that his affection for the girl will never be rewarded and that all he knows about the girl arises from his imagination. His hollow daydream shatters upon a collision with reality and transforms into a self-recognition of “a creature driven and derided by vanity.”
I was, and still probably am, one of these creatures. For it is not the relationship itself that makes a relationship beautiful, but the imagination of what a relationship could be. This fantasy fogs my vision, obscuring the reality of a relationship, almost like imagining unwrapped gifts on Christmas morning, before opening them to disappointment. Fantasy inevitably leads to loss, and make-believe love stories are no different. The moment he comes over and speaks to me, the moment he shuns or neglects me or the moment his slender fingers touch someone else’s hand, my illusion of what-could-have-been is shattered.
The important thing is that, if we must lose one day, we need to conquer this fear and become masters of the art of losing. In fact, the losses we fear the most are not physical, but something in our imagination.
I used to sit next to a boy in primary school. He was by no means good-looking, but he had small slanted eyes that curved when he smiled. He had a sister who couldn’t tell her right shoe from the left one because she was disabled, and he would often kneel down to tie her shoes for her. He gave me two nicknames: Sister Furong, an internet celebrity in China that received worldwide notoriety for becoming the synonym of ugliness, and Diaochan, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China.
In middle school, however, we were not as close as we used to be, taking different classes, barely seeing one another, let alone poking fun at each other like we used to do. Therefore, when I heard an ambulance blaring down the street during English class, I would never have thought that the boy who texted me a few weeks before, asking for my opinion about a place to celebrate his 13th birthday on the last day of December, was the same boy outside surrounded by a crowd, the boy twitching on the school’s racetrack, the boy we lost on a casual morning run because of a congenital heart defect.
Like a forceful hand yanking out a paper towel, this loss pulled at my heart over the next few weeks. At school, I hid in the bathroom to brush away my tears, my spirit becoming drier and drier with the number of tears I shed. I sat cross-legged on the rooftop with empty beer cans scattered on the floor and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song” ascending into the vast empty sky.
Why did I grieve about him becoming a memory if he had already become a memory of the past?
I thought my inundating sorrow was strange back then. What was it that I lost when he had stopped being part of my life, when his small slanted eyes had become unrecognizable to me, when our friendship had faded away like stars above city lights at night? Why did I grieve about him becoming a memory if he had already become a memory of the past?
I went to his funeral. It was the first funeral I’d ever been to. I forgot to bring tissues with me, so I couldn’t stop my nose from streaming. I looked at him when we circled around him again, except this time, he lay still peacefully in a glass coffin.
It was then that I realized what I had lost. I lost the chance for his eyes to see me again. His small slanted eyes, curved by a smile, would never curve again. What I lost was not something in the past, but something that could have happened — no, will never happen. The fog had withdrawn, and I will never receive the gifts that once lived in my imagination.
Perhaps this fear of losing is related to a deeply rooted sense of anxiety. Perhaps anxiety is the cause of all troubles. We welcome and look for constant conflicts, intimidating obstacles and frustrating paradoxes in life, only because we are afraid that we could have done better and attained just a little bit more.
Perfection is meaningless, worthless, charmless and basically pointless in a world where we depend upon the abilities to be loved and to be hurt.
We are afraid of losing the better vantage point on top of the mountain, the more delicious slice of a chocolate cake or the more enchanting romantic relationship. Are these near-unattainable experiences better? We don’t know. But we assume they are better, motivated to strive after these goals before we realize there is nothing better than what you have.
If we have to lose something, let it be lost. None of us should be the person who weeps over every single loss. Life will train us into brazen people with cheeky smiles, made stubborn by the heartaches and troubles of everyday life. While some say we as faulty creatures do not deserve perfection, I argue that the real reason is simply because perfection has nothing to do with us. Perfection is meaningless, worthless, charmless and basically pointless in a world where we depend upon the abilities to be loved and to be hurt. If every single one of us achieved perfection, every interaction with others would be like trying to fit puzzle pieces that are perfectly round.
In my head, I’m always hearing Norah Jones’ lyrics from “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John”: “What a waste. I could’ve been your lover. I could’ve been your friend.” But red roses always turn white within our grips. We grasp too hard and hold too tightly onto opportunities that can only be fulfilled by letting go.
We are forever losers, stuck with lovelorn hearts that are impossible to satisfy. We will lose everything one day. That’s why we should learn to let go so that we can become freer and lighter.
This is the art of losing.