Learning from loss

2009-03-20 00:00

A recent Cinema Nouveau film was called Things We Lost in the Fire. It was a touching portrayal of two people coming to terms with the huge loss of a mutual loved one, as well as a loss of their own identities. Through dealing with these losses they came to a much deeper understanding of themselves.

At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, I’ve also been thinking about the things we gain when we confront the things we lost. My daughter has been ill for six months with an insidious and almost invisible malaise. She’s had to leave the very good high-achievement school she’d excelled in, especially during her time in the primary school.

I realised how much the loss of her apparent prospects had affected me when I listened to a chance rendition of Pia Jesu last night. My daughter had sung the same exquisite hymn in her final chapel service at primary school, doing a duet with another member of the choir. The two soaring sopranos had reduced the congregation to tears. Listening to the hymn last night left me heart-broken for a while at her apparent missed opportunities. Then I started to think about the film I saw almost a year ago. Sometimes the things we lose in the fires of life give us gifts we never expected.

Very often we have plans and ideas about our future and especially those of our children. We envisage a future for them which will hopefully be brighter and more successful than our own. We can’t help ourselves. I suppose it’s all to do with the propagation of the species. When these expectations don’t come to fruition, we can feel a little disappointed in some ways.

But again, at the risk of sounding like a multi-forwarded feel-good e-mail, I realised that this time out of the rat race has been a huge gift to my daughter and me. Taking all the pressure off her (which is extreme in today’s schools) has allowed her to relax for the first time in a number of years. While she doesn’t feel terribly well, she’s rediscovered her sense of humour and we’ve grown much closer. She’s also had time to think about her identity, without peer pressure or external demands. This is one of the most rare gifts. She said to me a few nights ago: “When I’ve found out who I am, I’d like to do more drama and comedy, and make people laugh.”

Maybe we all need time out of the rat race to find out who we are and, if at all possible, make people laugh. The high-achieving society we live in puts huge pressure on us to produce visible outcomes to justify our time on Earth. Some things are prized more highly than others. Growing an excellent vegetable garden is not prized as much as writing a novel. In fact, it is as much of an achievement, if not better, in my opinion. And being able to say you truly know yourself is far more valuable than winning an Oscar for playing other people.

So this time out of the world-which-is-too-much-with-us has allowed our whole family to re-evaluate the essential values in life. Firstly, it’s a cliché but it’s true: there is nothing more important in life than health. And if that is compromised, perhaps there are benefits to taking things slowly and more contemplatively. Also examining the pain that comes with illness or loss of any kind allows one to open a window into another world.

The Sufi poet Rumi said: “Look to your wounds: that’s where the light comes in.”

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