On Loss:

I look at the history of humanity and I see that humans inherently understand the beauty that can come with losing the people and things that we love.

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How many of us can claim we haven’t felt the painful sting of true loss in our lives?

Of course, none of us can. Even the old monk who has nothing to lose has, at some point in time, lost a teacher or has left a family that meant the world to him.

In fact, most of us have recently lost someone (or something) dear to us. It could have been a grandparent, a cat, a job (that you loved), a sibling, or a significant other.

Obviously loss comes in varying degrees. We could have lost a great aunt that we happened to get along with well, or we could have lost the person we believed with all of our hearts that we would someday grow old with.

Most of you probably had a specific name or a face pop into your head as you were reading this. The memory of that person or thing instantly triggered a pain somewhere inside of us. The more intricately entwined with our soul that person or thing was (or is), the deeper and more astonishing that pain would have been.


 

We’ve all gone through it. The loss of someone unmeasurably important to us. The subsequent days in bed, looking out the window at a landscape that always seems to be dark and rainy. We sit in front of computer screens watching cartoons or scrolling Facebook. We do anything we can instead of facing that pain.

We desperately try to escape it, but we can’t. We buy our favourite foods only to realise we have no appetite. We organise a girls’ night only to realise we’re not really in the mood for company or the notion of changing out of our sweat pants. Some of us need to switch to stronger medicine. We binge drink or we get high. We seek out pleasures of the flesh.

Some of us chase a feeling – any feeling – other than pain. Some of us are happy just to numb ourselves. Some of us even like a bit of a blend, the numbing of our minds and souls but the good old stimulation of the physical senses. No matter our medicine, we close our hearts to the world.

But what happens to our heart when this happens? Where does it go?


 

Some say our pain is the risk we take, and a symptom of loving someone fully and completely. Others claim is it a symptom of loving foolishly, and with crippling dependence on that which we’ve lost.

I think of everything I’ve lost in my life and it’s easy to see where the pain comes from. I saw my grandmothers very infrequently, and my dependence on them was extremely limited. The pain of losing them, however, was great. I would say the same of the loss of my favourite dog growing up.

That is because the pain of our loss is directly related to how much love we put into a relationship, and how open and vulnerable we allow ourselves to be in order to receive the return of that love. It is in this understanding we can solace in dark times.

I’ve said it before, I know very little about this crazy world we’re caught spinning in. I know even less about that blinding force which we call love. In many ways, I’m hopeless when it comes to these things. But I look at the history of humanity and I see that humans inherently understand the beauty that can come with losing the people and things that we love.


 

I think of John Keats, of Dante Alighieri, Andy Warhol, and countless other poets, artists, and writers who used the power of loss in order to create something beautiful. Since the dawn of time, humanity has found ways to turn our losses into our gains. Destruction into construction. Pain into the inherent pleasure of creation. We’ve taken the holes left by loss and we’ve planted and nurtured seeds of beauty in them.

Taj
The famous Taj Mahal was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who was mourning the death of his wife who had died giving birth. [Source: placesunderthesun.com].
Life has many ways of taking those we love from us. Death, break-ups, situations of long distance or bad timing, and many other pressures of life. In this life, loss comes at us from all angles. We should expect for the agents of loss at every turn.

We cannot control who, or what, we lose. We cannot control when we lose them.

But we can always control how we react to it. As long as we consciously recognise and accept our grief, then it is in our power to limit and indulge in it as we see fit.

It seems funny that our natural response to losing something or someone is to sit still. To mourn. To hold our breath. To try and cease existing entirely. On the most simple of levels, mourning a loss is compounding our grief. We add loss to loss. We lose days and weeks. We lose our connection to the world around us, to the people who love us, and – most importantly – we lose the connection to ourselves.

If we’ve already lost someone special to us, why lose another moment, or experience, or chance to indulge in life?


 

Why not indulge in that pain as so many creative humans have before us? We can use that powerful energy and turn it into something that serves us rather than something that cripples us. Something that banishes us to the dark corners of the mind.

ghosts
“The People You Love Become Ghosts Inside Of You And Like This You Keep Them Alive.” (2010) by Rob Montgomery: as suggested by its title, this piece of art was inspired by the death of loved ones.

For mother time is a huntress who has never hunted a prey she could not track. She always catches her target. And she comes for us all.

This is why we need to keep moving forward, because time always moves on without us. We don’t have to get out of bed, but the world keeps spinning. We don’t have to pass the time, but the time will pass us by. Eventually our time will be up, and we will be taken away from those who cherish us.

So get out of bed, and put away the tub of Ben and Jerry’s. Turn your loss and your pain into something wonderful.

You can turn that loss of your dream job into that European vacation you fantasized about since you first saw photos of Rome. You can transform the death of your brother into a piece of literature that honours and  immortalises him for all of time. You turn your loss of innocence into paintings which inspire emotions in people so powerful that it tells your story without using words. You can take getting dumped as a sign it’s time to start fresh and experience the thrill of living in a new city, or country.


 

Loss is a part of opening your heart to the amazing experiences of life. Unfortunately, it is unavoidable. The more fulfilling of a life we live, the more we’ll feel that familiar pain of loss. That pain is ours. We can run from it, or we can turn it into something that lifts the soul to the higher realms of creation. It takes courage, but I promise you have that courage inside of you.

What’s your choice going to be?

Be good to each other,

~MG.

On Remembrance:

Every year during this month, on the eleventh day, at the eleventh hour, we remember.

But what, exactly, are we remembering?

Not one veteran of the first world war is still living. Of the over sixty-five million central and allied soldiers who fired a shot in that war, there is not one of them who still draws breath. Think about that.

There is not a single person alive who experienced the horror of the battlefield first hand. Of the hundreds of millions of bullets and shells exchanged in the first world war, there is no longer anyone who actually remembers pulling a trigger.


Two Canadian Soldiers Share Cigarettes on the Battlefield. [Image Source: stcatharinesstandard.ca]
Two Canadian Soldiers Share Cigarettes on the Battlefield.
[Image Source: stcatharinesstandard.ca]
For our part, we remember statistics, dates, key players, and usually a story or two regarding a distant relative who fought in the war.

Our countries remember glorious victories and heroic deeds. We remember who “won” and “lost”. We remember the names of leaders and generals who led the troops. We remember the rhetoric about our freedom. Men gave up their lives so that we could live free ones.


But are we missing something? Is there something else we should remember?

Too often do we forget it was not statistics fighting the war. It was not the generals and leaders who were up to their stomach in mud, blood and human waste.These were fellow humans, living through terrifying nightmares that our lives of comfort cannot allow us to comprehend.

Historian Dan Carlin refers to it as the “human element” in his fantastic Blueprint for Armageddon series.

These were people like you and I, thrown into the 20th century version of a meat grinder. This was the future generation of an entire world being gambled like poker chips.

In forcing ourselves to face the human element of war, we force ourselves to remember what we have.


Children forced to evacuate their home country of Montenegro as a result of Austrian occupation. [Source: U.S. Army Signal Corps No. 153238.]
Children forced to evacuate their home country of Montenegro as a result of Austrian occupation.
[Source: U.S. Army Signal Corps No. 153238.]
Roughly 18 million people died in the first world war alone. To put that into perspective, take the two biggest cities in North America (Mexico City and New York) and then imagine every single person in both cities being wiped off of the face of the earth. Our minds simply cannot conceive how much life was lost during those four years.

Entire neighbourhoods of men signed up together, and were slaughtered together. Think of a group of your closest friends, people you grew up with and love like family. Brothers from another mother; sisters from another mister. You may think of team-mates, neighbourhood besties, dance-mates, the list goes on. I think of a group of brothers I grew up with in the cold rinks of Canada.

Now picture the group of you, walking miles in a wasteland. Think Mordor, the aftermath of Hiroshima and Dresden, or the Moon. You shiver as the cold spring rain beats down on your group. Bullets whiz past your heads, and shells are exploding all around you.

On the first day, half of your group is killed by a single shell. Their body parts litter your trench but you’re uncertain what leg belongs with what torso, so you don’t bother with the pieces of them.

Your closest friend of the group goes insane within days of your arrival because of the constant pounding of artillery and screaming of machine gun fire. That friend is accused of cowardice by your superiors for his refusal to control himself, and is executed for it. You know he wasn’t a coward, his mind had just been incapable of accepting the horrors all around him.

The rest of you are sent over the top of the trench which, like the last fourteen attempts, ends in complete failure. You fall into a hole carved into the earth by an explosion and hide there, hoping the enemy doesn’t jump into the cavity and gut you with his shiny new Nahkampfmesser made of the finest German steel.

At dusk, you hear one of your last remaining friends screaming in pain and crying for help. He’s bleeding out in no-man’s land. Just as you build up the courage to try to save him, you see another friend you had no idea was still alive dart across the barren waste in your injured friend’s direction. He is immediately cut to pieces from machine gun fire. You lose your nerve.


Meet a Few Members of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment; of the 801 who Arrived at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, only 68 Were Able to Fight the Next Day. Among the Dead, 14 Sets of Brothers Died Together in a Single Day. Stories Like This Were More Common Than We Appreciate. [Photo Source: Wikipedia]
Meet a few of the members of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment; of the 801 who arrived at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, only 68 were able to fight the next day.
Among the dead, 14 sets of brothers died together in a single day.
Stories like this are more common than we appreciate.
[Photo Source: Wikipedia]
Darkness falls. You rush out into the field while the artillery fireworks light up the night sky. You find the friend who had been crying. He’s dead. His own fist is shoved down his throat. You realise that he had seen one friend die because of his screams, and didn’t want to see another, so he gagged himself with his own hand. You remove the letter he wrote to his fiancée back home, who is pregnant with a baby girl, and you run back to the trenches.

Everyone you arrived with is now dead. It hasn’t been a week.


By the end of the war, this will happen to thousands of people. Some will witness people grasping at their throats, eyes bulging, as they fight for the air that chlorine gas is suffocating out of them.

Some will look into the tear filled eyes of barely eighteen year old boys gasping their final breaths. Some will see men wrapped up in barbed wire and covered in bullet holes. Most will smell the stench of millions of rotting corpses. Many will starve or freeze to death. This is the human element.


Early Gas Masks Were Terrifying, But Not As Terrifying As Everyday Life For Soldiers On The Front. [Source: historyonthenet.com]
Early gas masks were terrifying, but not as terrifying as everyday life for soldiers on the front.
[Source: historyonthenet.com]
And yet, for the most part, these people dug in their heels and kept fighting. The romance of war had long been shattered by the horrific scenes they were forced to endure, and yet these men trudged on. They weren’t stupid, but they felt they had no choice. They were terrified. They  believed they would die.

And yet they showed a resilience that is the truest testament to the strength of the human spirit. Let us remember that these were the people that, after witnessing humanity completely shatter itself, had to pull up their boots after the fighting was done and put the pieces of civilisation back together again.


But I can’t help but ask, how would we have handled it? We in the west have lived in relative peace for a long time. We have no great war to fight, no existential threat to truly fear.

In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.” Herodotus, The Histories.

We think poor WiFi signal is a problem, or that it’s preposterous when we don’t get a strong cell phone signal in our apartment. We think the weekly grind is a struggle, and our weekend spin class is torture. We think we’re hungry when it’s 6 pm and we haven’t yet had our third meal. Many of us can hardly handle the loss of a dog or a cat, how would we react to witnessing millions of humans being slaughtered in front of us?


So what, exactly, are we supposed to remember?

We remember all that they lost – in the most tragic and sickening of ways – so that we may appreciate all that we have. We remember the darkness they were forced to endure, so that we may embrace the light. We remember the senseless hatred and violence so that we may promote love and laughter.

Let us remember the horror our fellow humans endured, so that we may never again do it to each other.

In putting ourselves, as best as we can, into the shoes of those who walked in the trenches, we’ll realise that we actually have a lot to be thankful for.

And to the soldiers who walked through hell, we thank you and we remember.

Be good to each other,

~ MG.