As I’ve thought about this post, I realize the theme of being lost and found is a thread running through my life and my writing. Years ago, when I was first introduced to Clarissa Pinkola Estes and devouring everything I could find by her, she used a phrase I’ve never forgotten: everything lost is found again.
Everything lost is found again.
The possibility of that truth gave me deep comfort, something I badly needed in those days.
Maybe we don’t find all the things we lose in our lifetimes, and maybe not in our deathtimes. But maybe someone else finds what we lost. Or maybe what we lost comes back to us looking so different we don’t recognize it. Or maybe what we lost is not truly lost at all. We carelessly leave things behind, or we amputate them, or we deny they were ever there in the first place. We fear we’ve lost them. We try to lose them. But maybe they never really leave us, they just hide somewhere in the attic of our minds until we need them. We ascend the stairs, enter the musk and debris of years, all the broken, aging, outdated and rejected parts of our lives and ourselves mouldering together in cobwebs and dust.
I like to imagine that.
I’ve posted before about being lost and found. I went back and read it as I worked on this post, so as not to be repetitive. That post was a seasonal meditation on the nature of change. I didn’t explore it quite from the angle of losing to find.
I came across a quote recently from Kristin Martz: “We lose ourselves in the things we love. We find ourselves there, too.” It made me smile, and think about the parts of my life so deeply absorbing I am self-forgetful as I live them. My head is empty. I am pure being, without self-consciousness or anxiety. Time does not exist. I feel a kind of boundary ecstasy, an awareness of connection to everyone and everything, an essential and lovely part of some greater whole.
Perhaps during such times we lose all the crust, the armor, the accumulation of useless and punishing junk we’ve somehow picked up or been taught, and are pared down to who we really are in our souls and spirits.
Many of us don’t want to let go of our junk, though. It’s been with us so long it forms part of our identity, part of our story, and we don’t want to let it go. Then who would we be? How would we recognize ourselves? What might change? What different or challenging things might we be required to do? We don’t take the leap into anything we might lose ourselves in, so we never fully find ourselves, either.
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Maybe the times in life when we truly feel we’ve lost it all are also the times we’re finding unimaginable grace and meaning.
It’s a circle, a natural life cycle, an ebb and flow of experience.
Another thing I came across somewhere years ago is the idea of an older, wiser version of ourselves, always at our shoulder supporting, advising, guiding, and cheering us on as we journey through our lives. I often make a picture of it in my mind, myself as an old (well, older!) crone, holding my hands out to a younger, struggling self the same way I hold my hands out to children I’m teaching to swim.
“You can do it. I’m right here. I won’t let go of you. You’ve got this! Now … swim!” Or jump. Or put your face in the water.
“Risk,” my elder self says, “dare, follow your heart, do what you need to do for yourself. Go ahead, write, it, dream it, imagine it, enjoy it. Be happy. Play. Rest. This is the way forward.”
And, “I believe in you.” That’s what I most long to hear.
I know it’s terribly cliched, but lately I’ve been thinking about what life means. Does it mean anything? Can anyone say what it means, or must we all make our own meaning? I lean toward the latter. I’ve wondered before what life is for, what I am for, but always in soul-dark times. This is not a dark time for me. In fact, I’m gradually coming back into the light. Now the question is a curiosity, a toy, and my answers are not concrete, not a vehicle for getting through another day, but more intuitive and less formed into language.
I keep going back to that quote: “We lose ourselves in the things we love. We find ourselves there, too.”
Losing everything to find something. There’s some kind of deep truth in that my intellect can’t quite grasp, but my spirit does.
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I wonder, with an inward smile, if that’s not my answer for the meaning of life. Finding myself, however that happens. Paring away all the scar tissue and junk, losing and losing and losing the people and places I thought were part of my identity, along with objects, money, youth, innocence, and countless other small, ordinary losses we all experience until the best, most extraordinary me is revealed. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the meaning of life is nothing more than to immerse ourselves in it, cherish our physical experience and pleasures, give ourselves to those activities in which we lose ourselves …
… and find ourselves?
No philosophy. No agonized handwringing or intellectual labyrinths. Just body, soul, joy, and loss. And discovery on the other side of loss.
All my life, when I tackle a problem or a challenge, if I don’t succeed I assume it’s about me. I’m not fill-in-the-blank-enough. I’m a failure. So, I work harder. I perseverate. I obsess. I refuse to give up. I try, and I try, and I go on trying until I’m used up, and then I try some more.
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Every now and then I get jarred into a wider perspective and I suddenly understand some problems can’t be solved. Some challenges can’t be mitigated. Sometimes the change I’m seeking is not possible. This happened recently with a short note from Seth Godin in my Inbox titled “The Win-Win Fallacy.”
I’ve studied power dynamics for several years now, as regular readers know. One of my most important filters in evaluating others is whether they come from a power-over (win-lose) or power-with (win-win) perspective. This discernment is not necessarily loaded with judgement. In some cases, power-over is both effective and appropriate. In terms of personal relationships, though, I’m not eager to engage with people working for power-over.
The invisible problem (to me) with this filter is I haven’t thought of it as a continuum. I’ve thought of it as two isolated positions. You’re one, or you’re the other. (You’re with me or you’re against me.)
I abhor black-and-white thinking. Way too much of it in the world. It’s always a trap, and it always feels manipulative. Maybe one of the reasons I dislike it so much is I’m so prone to it myself. It sneaks up on me, completely invisible, and I’m chagrined when I realize I’ve fallen into it. Again. Aargh!
These few sentences from Godin point out many problems don’t have a win-win solution, especially problems that have been around a while. If there was a win-win, someone would have found it. Think about gun control, for example. (I know, I don’t want to think about it anymore, either, but our children are going to keep dying in schools until we figure it out.)
Maybe it’s not that I’m too stupid to find the win-win in any given situation. Maybe there isn’t one.
Maybe some problems can only be solved on a continuum of sort-of-win, sort-of-lose, or even definitely win-lose, at least in the short term. Maybe, as Godin points out, what we should work for is something better than we have now, a situation in which most people are happier than they are with the current status quo. This, by the way, is what’s known as compromise.
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Time changes things. I’ve often lost in the short term but won in the long term, or vice versa. Winning and losing are relative positions, a snapshot of one moment in time. They can and do change. (A private prayer of thanksgiving here.)
We are obsessed with winning in this culture. We’ll kill others and/or ourselves in order to be right. We’ll lie, cheat, and steal to ensure we win. We elevate winners with power, money, and authority. Some people are unable to accept losing anything, ever.
People who operate from this perspective are unable to discuss, negotiate, or compromise. They have no interest in the price of their win, as long as they get it. They don’t care who loses, who suffers, who dies. They don’t care about justice. The win is all. Nothing else matters.
Then there are people like me who are convinced justice (always assuming we can identify and agree upon what’s just!) is desirable and achievable and must prevail at any cost. I’m equally obsessed with the belief that winning doesn’t matter a damn and people who think winning is power are pathetic. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. What matters is working together to figure out the greatest good for everyone, for all life on Planet Earth, most of which is not human, by the way.
But what if there’s not a win-win, in either the short or the long term? We’re losing animal species every day. Maybe certain kinds of human thinking and behavior should also go extinct. Maybe we need losers so the majority wins.
So the majority wins, not the most powerful minority. Just to be clear. And that means sometimes we need to be willing to lose something for the greater good. A small sacrifice. What a concept.
It’s tricky. I don’t want it to be tricky. I want it to be clear, because that’s easier. Win-lose, or win-win.
But I see it’s not clear. It is a continuum. Lots of shades of grey in there, lots of ways to win and lose at once, and even that changes over time.
On a purely personal level, I need to stop making myself and everyone else crazy with my neurotic obsession with absolutely equal power, a perfectly equal win. I do believe it can happen. I believe it’s possible. On the other hand, Godin has me convinced it’s not always possible. If I’ve tried as hard and as long as I can, maybe the problem isn’t me at all. Maybe the only solution(s) are somewhere between the pure and saintly win-win and the power-grabbing win-lose.
In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?
If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.
As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.
It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.
However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.
The thing about a democracy is it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.
Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.
I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.
A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.
If it’s true we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.
I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.
Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?
Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.
Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty acknowledging and even honoring differences within a framework of checks and balances so one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.
Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.
Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.
Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.
If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?
Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?
Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?