“We can discover this meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” – Viktor Frankl
I lost an Aunt due to COVID
I recently lost an Aunt of mine in Pakistan due to COVID. She was a cousin of my mum’s. I hadn’t stayed close to her in my adult life but always had fond memories of her from my childhood. So when I heard the news it hit hard. It was numbing at first and then I found myself remembering those good old times with her and I started talking about it with my mum and my sisters. Tributes from her colleagues started showing up (she was a member of a political party). I was amazed by how different people remembered her for so many different things. One person can mean so many things for the people around them.
This was especially pronounced when I called up her son, someone I hadn’t spoken to in years and realised he was processing his grief in such a different manner to mine. His way of acceptance felt different. It felt a bit angry. It wasn’t the calm acceptance that I’ve been quietly working on for the past year. So I’ll call him up again and see if I can help.
Finding meaning in life
Victor Frankl experienced the brutality and darkness humanity is capable of during World War 2. He spent time in Nazi death camps. Being a psychiatrist, he developed his branch of psychotherapy based on his observations of people dealing with the constant presence of death; random, sinister and final. He found that people discover meaning in three ways. By finding fulfilment in a) something they do, or b) something or someone they experience or c) how they accept suffering and loss. It is this last way of finding meaning that is the hardest to follow and also the one most neglected by almost all of us in the modern era.
Wisdom we lost from the ancients
Greco-Roman philosophers were obsessed with finding ways to accept loss. Especially the Stoics. While it’s great to see that Stoicism has seen a revival in the modern era, in this revival we’ve done away with the spiritual side of it focused only on the logical. We often quote Marcus Aurelius as saying “control what you can” but we omit the part about “leave the rest to the Gods”. It’s this letting go of outcomes, of results of things we want, that we’re struggling with the most in our modern dilemmas.
Working on accepting loss
Working on our acceptance of loss is the most important step in personal development and self-leadership. Not in an aggressive manner where we scoff at the world and we choose to carry on despite the hardship because what other choice is there. But in a serene acceptance with equanimity because what we want to hold on to was never ours to control.
We never get to decide the time of our birth or death, we only get to experience life. Like my mentor, Etsko Schuitema is fond of saying “our only purpose really is to be in awe of this Universe”. Our attention is so constantly rooted in what we’re getting or not getting. We fail to acknowledge what we’ve been given. If we really paused to say thanks for everything we’ve been given one by one, we’d have to have another lifetime just to do that. Luckily we have the capacity to “not give a damn”. In all seriousness though, have you ever wondered if you’ve been given in excess of what you yourself have given. It’s an alien thought isn’t it?
Loss can build character, but can also break it. Be careful
If we work on our acceptance of suffering with reluctance, with suppressed anger, we’re only going to hurt our own character and values. It’ll be our own heart attack. Albert Camus suggested in the 1950s that “we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy”. Sisyphus was a character in ancient Greek Mythology who was punished for cheating death twice by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. Jordan Peterson more recently said “The purpose of life is finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.”.
There are two things happening here: a) the discussion on meaning and purpose has recently become dominated by western authors and philosophers. b) the dominant narrative has become about “just pushing through”. This was my narrative as well for more than half my life. I’m 40 years old now and I’ve finally come to a phase in my life where I can accept a different narrative. Why should I have to imagine Sisyphus to be happy? Why should I view the largest responsibility I can bear as my burden.
Surely all that I have been given already, so much of which I have not even acknowledged, surely anything I give from this point onwards can not make up for what I’ve already received. Surely I can do all the things the Stoics used to talk about, but with a smile on my face this time. Because I’m learning to dance this dance with life.
I’m no stranger to loss but is loss a stranger to me?
Listen, I’m in the age bracket where I have started to lose people from my life. The aunts and uncles who were like stars in the night sky when I was a kid, whom I had so much fun with, one by one, their starlight will extinguish. I lost my father a year ago, I lost an aunt just now, a friend lost his dad two weeks ago, another lost his mum last week, yet another friend is praying for her mother right now. Loss is as much a part of everyone’s life as is happiness and fulfilment. I don’t want to begrudge loss, I want to accept it with equanimity. So let me enquire from some eastern authors and philosophers about loss.
“Happiness follows sorrow, sorrow follows happiness, but when one no longer discriminates between happiness and sorrow, a good dead and a bad deed, one is able to realize freedom. Happiness or sorrow- whatever befalls you, walk on untouched, unattached.” – Buddha
“We should feel sorrow, but not sink under its oppression” – Confucios
“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.” – Rumi
Now these quotes I find much more palatable and they put a smile on my face. So wherever you are, whatever situation you are in, there is nothing preventing you from looking at loss differently. Let it in. Gently. And let it sit with all the other emotions you carry in your vessel. Let the mosaic of your life build itself.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
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