Monday, August 9, 2010

Loss and Learning

My first night in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I awakened early in the morning with an overwhelming excitement that I was going to get lost. Now, normally, or perhaps to most people, this might appear to be a problem, but I have practiced getting lost for so many years now that I am not only resigned to it, I anticipate it. Decades ago, when I first started thinking about what loss was about, I began to notice that men and women talked differently about loss. So, I started doing a little experiment where I would ask people one quick question and then see if I could see any patterns in their responses. Here is the question, "what is the opposite of lost?" What I began to notice was that men tended to respond, "won," while women responded, "found." While this particular blog post is not going to delve into the implications of possible gender differences relating to loss, for me loss has become inextricably bound up with being found. It is like the old song, Amazing Grace, "I once was lost, but now I'm found." Getting lost is a powerful technique for learning. Hence, my excitement about the prospect of being lost in Jerusalem.

Loss seems to be such a problem for good reasons--it causes confusion, it is de-stabilizing, it forces one into a state of disequilibrium. Our assumptions are revealed, our paradigms are exposed, and we feel that somehow everything we have taken for granted is up for grabs. Loss is, at its heart, a challenge to our concept of ourself. Loss is something one never really masters, only mitigates--or embraces. One of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote a poem, "One Art," where she struggles to make losing into an art, and, through that, be able to survive it,

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.

The 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 loved 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!) like disaster.

Loss as impermanence is so much a part of life that it is unavoidable. Loss also has so many different levels, timbers, cadences and textures that it means so many different things to different people. It seems to be something we would want to avoid; but Bishop gives us another way. If we can only bear up under the discomfort and pain of loss, we will gain the possibility of finding something in our loss. What is it that we might find?

Loss sometimes seems to feel like a kind of homelessness, and certainly there is no city in the world where one has to confront idea of spiritual exile as in Jerusalem. The lesson often seems to be that the exile oftentimes allows us to learn something about out deepest self. The loss of a physical home forces people to re-define their emotional, communal and spiritual sense of themselves. Kenwyn Smith explores this in his book Yearning for Home In Troubled Times as does an old professor of mine, Henri Nouwen in a number of different writings.

If being lost--the act of wandering in the wilderness--is so deeply linked to feeling ultimately at home then how does one cultivate the capacity for embracing loss? What should one practice losing first? Is there a taxonomy of loss that would acclimate us in the most developmentally sound way? Or is that just folly?

Perhaps we should begin, as I do when I make way out into the Old City that morning, by carrying and creating maps? We would learn then how much maps are about changing perspective (something Bishop wrote about as well in her poem, "The Map") and naming things. What do you think we might learn to lose in order to cultivate the experience of being lost, and later, found? This is my question for this blog post--what should we practice losing, and how might we best do it?

When I climbed Masada in an earlier trip to Israel, I found myself matching steps with an Argentine philologist who was in Jerusalem for a conference but felt the same need to gaze over the desert from the perspective of that ancient mountain fortress. I tried to explain what I thought experience-based learning was about and how I took students to New York City, that I was not a guide really, but couldn't explain what I was. At one point he looked over and said, "You all must be great teachers." I demurred, but he explained, "In Buenos Aries we have a saying that a good teacher teaches his students to find their way in the city; a great teacher teaches them how to get lost in the city." That, I thought, that I could try to get better at.

Practicing getting lost in a city seems a good start, but ultimately we will come up against a sense of our conception of our selves that will be unsettled, and potentially transformed. In those moments I hope try to remember the words of the psychologist Thomas Szasz, "Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all."

Any thoughts on how we make losing a part of the way we move about in the world?

1 comment:


    Also, in psych 101 we read about this study of putting mice in mazes, and how it might enhance their dreams! Here's a link:

    Do you have brighter, deeper dreams after getting lost?