Some Thoughts on Loss and the Art of Losing

Love and Loss – Source: Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

I recently heard the topic ‘The Art of Losing’, discussed on the Radio 4 programme Just a Minute. It was very funny, but not illuminating on the topic itself. I enjoyed it – it was comedy not an education programme.

Can Losing be an Art Form?

But, losing as an art form? I thought not. Neither is the art of winning. Most of life’s personal and group activities and enterprises cannot be construed as art, nor many as a competition with a winner or winners and a loser or losers. Some can, such as tennis tournaments and elections, stock market league tables and the capitalist marketplace, exams and job interviews, and maybe the race to get out of poverty or a humdrum job and into a more comfortable life-style or a more satisfying job.

But to lose a tennis match, say, or not be top of the stock market league table is near the bottom of life’s long list of worst possible losses. Near the top would be the death of a loved one, especially if it occurs in an unnatural, unnecessary or violent way; the loss of memory; the loss of a home or a livelihood; the losses from a war; the loss of a country; or even the loss of the planet we all live on. There does not seem to be a good way to lose such monumental battles, although art has made a contribution to coping with the loss, for example the Holocaust Memorial, the art of Kathe Kollwitz, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Picasso’s Guernica.

The American poet Elizabeth Bishop listed some of her own very serious losses through life, and some of these are mentioned, as well as her smaller losses, in her poem, ‘One Art’ (previously titled ‘The Art of Losing Things’):

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.

Then 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.

The poem seems to say that losing things is so regular and inevitable and you get so used to it that losses are no disaster, that in the end you just get used to them and accept them because you have to.

Fatalism or Resistance

There are two ways of thinking about this. Either one says, as the Roman philosopher Seneca does, that losses, such as one’s own or someone else’s death, are inevitable, so there is no point in worrying or feeling anxious about them; or, that some losses are preventable or the risk of their occurring can be minimised, in which case one should take appropriate action.

But this is to over-simplify. One’s own death or someone else’s death may be inevitable, eventually, but there may well be time to forestall and delay it with appropriate actions. Adopting too much fatalism undermines any desire to fight to prevent the worst or most immediate losses. The true story told in ‘The Nine’ (Gwen Strauss), is an example. Nine immensely brave and resourceful young French women were arrested in 1944 by the French police and tortured by the German Gestapo for being members of the Resistance. They were sent to the Ravensbrück enslaved labour camp and put to work. Their rations were miniscule and filthy, but they set up a mutual support group, tended each other’s illnesses and shared what little food they had. As the American army came closer in 1945, they were taken out of the prison and sent on a death march to another prison deeper in Eastern Europe. During the march, they all managed to escape, and together they spent weeks walking through rural countryside, foraging for food, helping each other, until they reached safety. They could have adopted a fatalist attitude and given up, realising that their puny efforts against their German masters would have been pointless. But they redefined their aim to one of survival, and they adopted a work-around policy which fortunately delivered for them. 

Likewise with approaching wars, famines, disasters, genocides. There may be little that a single person can do to prevent or delay these events, but there is often a great deal that collective action can do. Public pressure is now successfully forcing governments and businesses to do much more than they otherwise would to avoid or reduce climate change. Massive demonstrations in London and elsewhere could have changed the UK Government’s policies on the Iraq war and on Brexit. Demonstrations against the poll tax did change Government policy.

But the cost of such avoiding, delaying or ameliorating action cannot be ignored. It costs almost nothing to send an email, to sign a petition, to write a letter to an MP, to contribute to a charity or to join a demonstration. But some things are so valuable, and the potential loss incurred so huge, that every effort may need to be made, and possibly costs borne and risks taken, to prevent the loss.

Think of Afghanistan (or Syria, Iran, Myanmar, Haiti, South Sudan). The losses to most of the inhabitants there following the wars and the Taliban takeover are astronomical in terms of their freedom to survive and live normal lives as 21st century citizens. That was not inevitable, but was imposed on them by failures from the top or outside which were beyond their control, and the failure to correct those failures. Now the losses must be borne, grieved over, mourned and then survived, with as much resilience as can be mustered, the losses so much more difficult to bear because they appear to have been largely brought about by corrupt local officials. There is no art to losing in these circumstances.

John Bowlby, psychiatrist, explained in his extensive writings how the loss of a loved person was in terms of their loss of attachment – the tendency of human beings to make strong affectional bonds with others, starting in infancy and childhood and extending into adulthood, and to have strong emotional reactions when those bonds are threatened or broken.

Humans (and animals) mourn to recover from a state of grief, following loss, and recover, completely or in part, to a state of psychological health. J. William Worden (Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, Tavistock Publications) describes four tasks to complete mourning, which may or may not be undertaken in the normal order, and which may or may not get satisfactorily completed in all cases. Mourning can be a lengthy process, undertaken well or otherwise according to the person and the circumstances and the help available. Forms of art can be extremely beneficial in helping this grieving process.

Serious Losses can be Collective

Losses can be immensely varied in type, scope and extent. They are not confined to losing a loved person, and they are not necessarily confined to the loss of people. In the UK, five recent and very serious losses, at a collective level, all partly or wholly self-inflicted and partially or totally foreseeable or avoidable, come to mind:

  • Austerity 2010-20. The financial crash of 2008 left the UK public finances in a bad way. The Conservative Government severely reduced public sector spending over the subsequent period, causing immense hardship and loss to many citizens (Sir Keir Starmer, The Road Ahead, Fabian Society paper, 2021, offers his alternative).
  • Incompetent, dishonest, undemocratic government. Since the lies and misinformation at the time of the Brexit Referendum, UK politics, as promoted by the Conservative Party, has deteriorated to the point where many voters do not trust what they are being told by Government, and nor do they like the policies, spinning and divisiveness of this Government. They are being failed by those who have been elected to govern, and this is a deeply felt loss.
  • Hard Brexit. For many citizens, this policy, and the manner it was sold and delivered to the nation, was somewhere between being seriously and stupidly misguided and an absolute disgrace. Current Government efforts to defend their Brexit and perpetuate and widen the breach with Europe magnify the sense of loss.
  • Coronavirus. Some losses were inevitable arising from this nasty and often fatal disease. But the UK performance in preventing infections and deaths and managing the problems, and in keeping the economy going while doing so, has been among the worst in the world, and certainly the worst among the developed nations. Many unnecessary deaths occurred, causing hardship and loss on a massive scale.
  • Climate Emergency. This is a world-wide emergency and problem, causing huge and widespread losses. It requires world-wide cooperation and action to manage, but so far the response has been largely inadequate, and emissions currently continue to rise rapidly. The pitifully slow, resentful, unplanned, weak response of the UK Government, in concert with its constant tub-thumping and world-beating rhetoric, has made bearing the distress and the mainly preventable future losses so much worse.

These personal and collective losses, causing wide-spread public and psychological grievances, many of them irretrievable and unrecoverable, have been imposed on a vulnerable public, who have had to bear them without any grief counselling assistance, nor without much opportunity for resilience or recovery. 

Bearing Collective Losses

There are two approaches of value, apart from the grief counselling mentioned above. Firstly, the philosophy of stoicism, to which Marcus Aurelius turned for succour and training in living, given the uncertainty of events and the certainty of losses (Meditations, edited and translated by Robin Waterfield). Marcus went on to become Roman Emperor.

Secondly, the idea of Resilience. ‘Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail’ (Confucius). ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts’ (Winston Churchill). See Resilience, (Jane Clarke & Dr. John Nicholson), for some practical advice to help you get through tough times.

‘The art of losing’ suggests that there are ways to lose well, lose with dignity, or lose but keeping positive. But in the case of unavoidable, extensive or widely incurred losses, losing cannot be done well, and acceptance of the loss is not possible. Before they occur, such losses can sometimes be resisted in some cases. Their cause should be understood and responded to. After they occur, they have to be borne with bravery, compassion, stoicism and resilience, and lessons learned. Rather beyond ‘Just a Minute’. More ‘Moral Maze’.


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