One of the things we need to learn if we haven’t learned it by the time we reach retirement and our ‘golden years’ is how to deal with loss. Aside from the obvious loss of friends and family though death and incapacitating illness, we have a host of other things we can ‘lose’, such as systems of support, material possessions, our physical abilities and perhaps most importantly—possibility. Not everyone experiences loss and certainly not in the same way. But loss, whether real or perceived, is one of the primary factors that can either keep us trapped in the past and living into an ever narrower future or it can be a source of great learning and freedom as we grow older.
Buddha taught that suffering is due largely to our attachments. Many philosophers and theologians since have echoed the same theme. We become attached to things and ideas and when we do, they tend to dominate our thinking and even become our predominant way of being on a day-to-day basis. When we lose (or think we’ve lost) something we value or care about or identify with, we experience loss and, for many of us, we also suffer. I sometimes teach that our ‘way of being’ is a habit that we think is the ‘truth’ about who we are. But whatever our ground of being and however it came to be, it organizes our experience of life, defines the boundaries of what is and is not possible, and becomes the context for all our relationships.
Sooner or later, we will be confronted with the loss or potential loss of everything we are attached to.
If we think about it, we can only lose what we’re attached to. Everything that we’re not attached to is just part of the fabric of life. When something in this latter category is lost or destroyed, we might feel bad or wish things were different but we don’t experience loss and we don’t suffer. In this sense, loss is a natural consequence of human experience when we are committed to something and our circumstances don’t line up with our commitment. Anyone who has experienced great loss knows that loss is a breakdown in the context of our deepest commitments to what is important, who we are, and what we value—and when we experience it, we hurt deeply.
I don’t think we have a choice about whether we experience loss. It happens. And when it does, as the saying goes, time will heal it. That may be the only cure for loss. But we do have a choice about what we are attached to. So if we can learn to let go of our attachments, then we will experience a lot less loss and perhaps transform our experience of what would have been loss into a way of being present in a way that could inspire us—even enrich our lives as we grow older.
This may be the true nature of serenity—the capacity to be present in the process of living day-to-day without expectation or attachments. To accept another’s dying as part of the continuous and inevitable change that is reality. To accept that whatever we have, whatever talents we may have, whatever relationships we enjoy—they are all fleeting in the context of time and our need to hold on to them or resist the forces of change are simply a futile attempt to control that which we cannot control. It is a manifestation of our addiction to our habitual ways of being, our comfort zones, our ego-centered desire for life to be the way we want it.
Perhaps wisdom begins by giving up the notion that we are in control and in letting go or surrendering to the great mystery of existence. I don’t know the answers, but I do have a commitment to have the last third of life be as rich and full as any other. I do know that a lot of people suffer, as they grow older, in part because of the losses they are experiencing. I would wish for them—and for all of us—the wisdom to give up our attachments and to celebrate each day as if it were the last. For in the end, attachments will obviously no longer matter…but the joy and happiness of our living will.