Lost & Found

Kathryn Schulz, Lost & Found (Random House, 2022):

  • Later, when I looked it up, I learned that there was a reason “lost” felt so apt to me. I had always assumed that, if we were referring to the dead, we were using the word figuratively—that it had been appropriated by those in mourning and contorted far beyond its original meaning. But that turns out not to be true. The verb “to lose” has its taproot sunk in sorrow; it is related to the “lorn” in “forlorn.” It comes from an Old English word meaning to perish, which comes from an even older word meaning to separate or cut apart. The modern sense of misplacing an object only appeared later, in the thirteenth century; a hundred years after that, “to lose” acquired the meaning of failing to win. In the sixteenth century we began to lose our minds; in the seventeenth century, our hearts. The circle of what we can lose, in other words, began with our own lives and each other and has been steadily expanding ever since. This is how loss felt to me after my father died: like a force that constantly increased its reach, gradually encroaching on more and more terrain. Eventually I found myself keeping a list of all the other things I had lost over time as well, chiefly because they kept coming back to mind. A childhood toy, a childhood friend, a beloved cat who went outside one day and never returned, the letter my grandmother wrote me when I graduated from college, a threadbare but perfect blue plaid shirt, a journal I’d kept for the better part of five years: on and on it went, a kind of anti-collection, a melancholy catalogue of everything of mine that had ever gone missing. pp. 4-5. My mother gave up early on the project of convincing him not to rile us up at bedtime; it was his job to read aloud to us each night, and he accomplished the task with extravagant gestures, dramatic voices, much thumping of the knees on which we were perched, and an exhilarating disregard for the text on the page. p. 9. Like being mortal, being slightly scatterbrained is part of the human condition: we have been losing stuff so routinely for so long that the laws laid down in Leviticus include a stipulation against lying about finding someone else’s lost property. Modernity has only made this problem worse. In the developed world, even people of modest means now live in conditions of historically unfathomable abundance, and every extra item we own is an extra item we can lose. Technology, too, has exacerbated the situation, rendering us chronically distracted while simultaneously supplying us with enormous numbers of additional losable things. p. 12
  • In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud describes “the unconscious dexterity with which an object is mislaid on account of hidden but powerful motives,” including “the low estimation in which the lost object is held, or of a secret antipathy towards it or towards the person that it came from.” A colleague of his put the matter more plainly: “We never lose what we value highly.” As explanations go, the scientific one is persuasive but uninteresting. Although it makes clear why we are more likely to misplace things when we’re exhausted or distracted, it sheds no light on how it actually feels to lose something, and it provides only the most abstract and impractical notion of how not to do so. (Focus! And while you’re at it, adjust your genes or your circumstances to improve your memory.) The psychoanalytic account, by contrast, is intriguing, entertaining, and theoretically useful (Freud pointed out how swiftly certain people of his acquaintance found something again “once the motive for its being mislaid had expired”) but, in the majority of cases, unconvincing. The most charitable thing to be said about it is that it wildly overestimates our species: absent subconscious motives, apparently, we would never lose anything at all. That is patently false—but, like many psychological claims, impossible to actually falsify. Maybe my father lost his baseball tickets because he was disappointed in Cleveland’s chronically lousy performance. Maybe my sister loses her wallet so often due to a deep-seated discomfort with capitalism. Freud would stand by such propositions, and no doubt some losses really are occasioned by unconscious emotion, or at least can be plausibly explained that way after the fact. But experience tells us that such cases are exceptional. The better explanation, most of the time, is simply that life is complicated and minds are limited. We lose things because we are flawed, because we are human, because we have things to lose. pp. 14-15
  • But my father had developed, instead, a compensatory ability to be cheerfully resigned to their disappearance. That is an admirable attitude—close, I think, to what the poet Elizabeth Bishop meant by “the art of losing.” The line comes from “One Art,” a poem I have always loved, and one of the most famous reckonings with loss in all of verse. In it, Bishop suggests that minor losses like keys and watches can help prepare us for more serious ones—in her case, two cities, a continent, and the lover to whom the poem is addressed. At first, this claim seems preposterous. It is one thing to lose a wedding ring and something else entirely to lose a wife, and we are rightly reluctant to equate them. Bishop knows this, of course, and in the poem’s final lines, when she contemplates the loss of her lover, the art of losing suddenly shifts from something that “isn’t hard to master” to something that’s “not too hard to master.” The italics are mine, but the concession is hers, and it undermines her overall assertion so much that it is easy to read the poem as ironic—as acknowledging, in the end, that the loss of a loved one is incommensurable with any other. Yet it is also possible to hear something else in those final lines: a reluctant admission that all of us must somehow learn to live with even our most devastating losses. In that reading, Bishop’s poem is perfectly sincere. It suggests that if we cultivate equilibrium around everyday losses, we might someday be able to muster a similar serenity when we lose more important things. That claim isn’t preposterous at all. Entire spiritual traditions are built on the idea of nonattachment, on the belief that we can learn to face even our gravest losses with acceptance, equilibrium, and grace. pp. 15-16
  • In the end, this may be why certain losses are so shocking: not because they defy reality but because they reveal it. p. 19
  • And yet if “to lose” originally meant to separate, my father was increasingly separated from the man he once had been. He no longer practiced law, although he had a passionate work ethic and had always cherished his colleagues and his job. He no longer traveled, although he loved to see the world, because too many injuries and difficulties befell him when he tried. He no longer drove, although all his life he had maintained a kind of happy teenage pleasure in doing so. He had never been an athlete but he had always been vigorous; now he could barely walk to the end of the block. On top of all of this there was the pain, and pain’s dreadful handmaiden, shame. Even now, I turn away slightly from the memory of my father, sweating visibly in a restaurant from a sudden increase in the agony caused by that nerve in his neck, needing to make it to the bathroom quickly but being unable to do so. p. 39
  • Like death more generally, my father’s own was somehow both predictable and shocking. pp. 40-41
  • All of this makes dying sound meaningful and sweet—and it is true that, if you are lucky, there is a seam of sweetness and meaning to be found within it, a vein of silver in a dark cave a thousand feet underground. Still, the cave is a cave. We had, by then, spent two vertiginous, elongated, atemporal weeks in the hospital. At no point during that time did we have a diagnosis, still less a prognosis. At every point, we were besieged with new possibilities, new tests, new doctors, new hopes, new fears. Every night we arrived home exhausted and talked through what had happened as if doing so might guide us through the following day. Then we woke up and resumed the routine of the parking garage and the ICU check-in desk and the twenty-four-hour Au Bon Pain, only to discover that, beyond those things, there was no routine at all, nothing whatsoever to help us prepare or plan. It was like trying to dress every morning for the weather in a nation we had never heard of. Living through the death of someone you love is such an intimate act that, inevitably, the memory of it inheres in odd, specific things: the voicemail you left for your cousin that he will never hear; the television show that was on in the background when the phone with its terrible foreknowledge began to ring; the darkened windowpane in the front door, turning red and then blue and then red again from the police lights revolving silently outside it. Yet for all this variability, a kind of sameness shapes the experience of death for many of us today, because so much of it takes place in hospitals. A hundred thousand plots unfold in just one setting; it is as if we had all wandered into the same upsetting dream. And while a hospital can be, in many ways, a good place to die, it is a strange and difficult place to begin to mourn. pp. 44-45
  • It would have been boring if it hadn’t also been horrible; something extremely urgent was happening, yet there was nothing whatsoever to do. p. 45
  • On and on it went like this, day after day. I was conscious of how lucky we were that the era of limited visiting hours and one-guest-at-a-time policies had passed, just as I am conscious, writing this now, of how lucky we were that the era of no guests at all was not yet upon us: that my father did not sicken and die during the coronavirus pandemic, when everyone’s grief was compounded by isolation—by the loss, on top of everything else, of the chance to sit with your loved one and say, “I’m right here.” It was a privilege and a comfort to be at my father’s side throughout his final weeks; if he was going to be confined to that room for so long, we wanted to be with one another, and with him. pp. 46-47
  • [The hospice room] was smaller and simpler than the one in the ICU, and much quieter. A few times a day, a nurse slipped in to check on him, but otherwise, we were alone with our thoughts and each other and, for one final spell, with my father. To my surprise, I found it comforting to be with him during this time, to sit by his side and hold his hand and watch his chest rise and fall with a familiar little riffle of snore. It was not, as they say, unbearably sad; on the contrary, it was bearably sad—a tranquil, contemplative, lapping kind of sorrow. I thought, as it turns out mistakenly, that what I was doing during those days was making my peace with his death. But I have learned since then that even one’s unresponsive and dying father is, in some extremely salient way, still alive. p. 49
  • This type of circular mourning, the grieving of grief itself, is perfectly normal and possibly inevitable yet also misguided and useless. There is no honor in feeling awful and no betrayal in feeling better, and no matter how dark and salted and bitter cold your grief may be, it will never preserve anything about the person you mourn. Despite how it sometimes feels, it has never kept anyone alive, not even in memory. If anything, it keeps them dead: eventually, if you cannot stop mourning, the person you love will come to be made only of grief. p. 67
  • I was vexed to discover, after my father died, how useless I was when called upon to console someone else in the face of death, how almost impossible it was to say anything at all that, in accuracy or helpfulness, could best the average platitude. Even when I was talking with my sister, whose sorrow pains me more than my own and who is the only other person on the planet to grieve my father as a father—even then, I don’t think I ever once said anything remotely comforting or useful. p. 69
  • “Where there was him, there is nothing,” I wrote of my father earlier, and that is true, with the caveat that “nothing” is not a neutral blankness. In the lane behind my house, there is a tree where I once saw an owl; now, every time I pass it, I look up automatically. That is something like the nothingness left behind after death: the place in the tree where the owl is not. pp. 72-73
  • The world is enormous in childhood. Even a modest suburban backyard contains its secret dangers and kingdoms; in the place Billy grew up, where a hundred acres regularly separated one neighbor from another, a walk home could span epochs and civilizations. The only thing larger than the land was the sky, obliged as it was to fill up all the space that the ground, which stretched almost perfectly flat from horizon to horizon, did not. pp. 79-80
  • How are we supposed to find love? For me, as for many people, this felt like a fraught question when I was single. Love is not like a lost object, after all: we can’t locate it by retracing our steps or thoroughly searching our surroundings. But it is also not like the solution to a problem; we may think about it for a very long time, we may imagine it in vivid detail, but we will never find it inside our own mind. It is something like a missing person—in fact, it is quite literally a missing person—but the search area in which we must look for it is essentially unbounded. It could be waiting at the local coffee shop, or three states away, or on staff at a hospital in Senegal, or at a holiday party you’re not very enthusiastic about attending, forty cold, rainy blocks from home. To make matters worse, in the majority of cases, it was last seen, by you, never. pp. 105-106
  • At one point, single and well into my thirties, it occurred to me that the things that made me happy in the short term—holing up at home reading, heading out alone on long trail runs, vanishing into the quiet of my work—were never going to lead me to the things I wanted in the long term: a partner, children, a home full of people I loved. That was a sobering realization. By that stage of my life, the solitude I cherished was already shading more and more often into loneliness, and with increasing frequency I found myself warding off sadness about not having a family of my own. pp. 107-108
  • [H]ope never materializes anywhere without fear having stowed away inside it. p. 122
  • [I]n my experience, you will seldom find a happy couple that does not take pleasure in some seemingly shallow thing they have in common. p. 131
  • It was the Shore that gave us those great patriots Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, while also giving us the men and women who enslaved them. The failure of Reconstruction to reconcile those parties and redress those wrongs lingers in the region, as in so much of the nation, in the form of persistent racial injustice, widespread de facto segregation, and scattered Confederate flags. But other and better southern influences linger on the Shore as well: in the instinct for hospitality; in the August-afternoon pace of life; in a population made up about equally of the congenitally reticent and natural raconteurs; in the elaborately preserved and frequently recited communal genealogies whereby So-and-so’s granddaddy worked with Great-uncle Jack on your mother’s side at that mechanic shop out on Hog Barn Road back before your Aunt Lula was born. The South or some part of it also lingers in the accent in which all this gets recounted, which sounds like the city of Pittsburgh sold off its consonants to the Carolinas. p. 139
  • Most of us fit only partially into our past selves, and most of us are only somewhat at home in our former homes. Even if we love them, even if we sometimes long for them, even if we know them down to the last ancient orange spatula in the kitchen utensil drawer, we inevitably outgrow them; the world is so big that anywhere you’re from eventually becomes parochial by comparison. It’s not just that once you leave your hometown behind, you encounter very different people and places from those you first knew. It is that your own past life starts to look different as well. In that sense, the self-consciousness I felt about my childhood home was really (as it so often is) something closer to other-consciousness—an awareness of how a place so familiar to me would look to someone who had never been there before. p. 142
  • By then, she lived, like so many people who venture far from their roots, in two largely non-intersecting worlds. Certain core parts of herself were invisible or inexplicable to most of the people she had grown up with; others were opaque or alien to those she met as an adult. p. 143
  • Eventually, inevitably, couples lead largely overlapping lives. Over time, you start to share more and more things: your friends, your families, a home, a morning routine, a favorite restaurant, an annoying neighbor, that winter when the pipes kept freezing, the cat who liked to sleep on top of the refrigerator, the first Christmas, the forty-fifth Seder, that terrible health scare, the time you got a flat tire on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And yet, even with this steady expansion of common ground, the enduring challenge of every relationship is to love across difference. That remains true no matter how similar you and your beloved might be, or might have become. pp. 144-145
  • That includes you: your beloved is not like you. No one ever makes their peace with this fact immediately, and no one ever makes it just once. We are called on over and over to remember that the person we love does not always have the same thoughts, feelings, frames of reference, reactions, needs, fears, and desires that we do. But overall, the trajectory of a happy relationship, which begins with cherishing similarity, ends in cherishing difference. p. 145
  • I’d recognized love when I’d found it because I had seen it from my earliest days. Without ever having to think about it, I had always known what it would look like: loyal, stable, affectionate, funny, forbearing, enduring. My sister, in adulthood, once put this very beautifully. Our parents, she said, had given us a love of ideas, and also the idea of love. p. 153
  • There are certain fighting words in relationships: you always x, you never y, calm down, grow up, I don’t have time for this. p. 154
  • . . . . made less noise than the moon when it sets. p. 158
  • Languages, like landmasses, change shape over time. Until the late nineteenth century, the final character of the English alphabet was not the letter Z but a word: “and.” That word was written—on countless slates and blackboards and grade school primers—as “&,” so that the whole sequence looked like this: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z & . . . . If you recite the alphabet with it stuck to the end, as schoolchildren across the English-speaking world were routinely required to do, you sound as if you are leaving your listener hanging: “…X, Y, Z, and.” And what? It’s not true, no matter what old-fashioned grammarians might tell you, that you shouldn’t start a sentence with “and,” but ending something that way is a different story. To solve this problem, students were taught to use the Latin phrase per se, meaning “in itself,” to indicate that they meant the character, not the word. Thus instead of saying “X, Y, Z, and,” they dutifully said, “X, Y, Z, and per se and”—a phrase that, over time, grew blurry from repetition. It is our language, then, that turned the Latin “&” into the ampersand. p. 189-90.
  • There is no enduring love on the planet, nor ever has been, that isn’t characterized by these crisscrossing moods. “Whoever supposes,” Montaigne once wrote, “to see me look sometimes coldly, sometimes lovingly, on my wife, that either look is feigned, is a fool.” We think of all these other emotions as supernumerary, as obscuring or even defiling the real thing. But there is no real thing—or, rather, taken together, this grab bag of reactions is the real thing. Love is the totality of ways you feel while in love; grief is the totality of ways you feel while grieving. Everything else is just an abstraction, a stream or a tree limb in the mind. “One never meets just Cancer, or War, or Unhappiness (or Happiness),” C. S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed. “One only meets each hour or moment that comes.” And whether you are living through happiness or cancer, the hours change and change. We all have, as Lewis wrote, “many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst.” p. 218
  • I, too, feel that way: that my days are exceptional even when they are ordinary, that existence does not need to show us any of its more famous or spectacular wonders to fill us with amazement. We live remarkable lives because life itself is remarkable, a fact that is impossible not to notice if only suffering leaves us alone for long enough. pp. 222-223
  • I love my life and wouldn’t exchange it for any other, but I am not sure the faint contrails of longing left behind by all these other imagined futures ever fully disappear. That’s not because some part of me still wonders who else I could have been; it is just a general mourning for the foreclosure of possibility. So many opportunities are out of reach from the moment we are born, ruled out by circumstance, and so many more are eliminated as we age. “It is impossible to have every experience,” Virginia Woolf wrote, regretfully; at best we get a glimpse of a sliver of what we are missing—“like those glances I cast into basements when I walk in London streets.” Decades later, the poet Louise Glück described this problem as “metaphysical claustrophobia: the bleak fate of being always one person.” Every other possible existence, in Idaho or Honduras or Lahore, as a carpenter or baseball player or musical genius, as a sibling if we are an only child or an only child if we are the youngest of seven—all of these variations on the human experience are unavailable to us. We have, unavoidably, only our one lifetime, and no matter how energetic or interested or fortunate or long-lived we may be, we can only do so much with it. And so much, against the backdrop of the universe, can seem so very little. pp. 232-233
  • We are here to keep watch, not to keep. p. 236.

Myths

Sam Allberry (@SamAllberry) has written a slender book called 7 Myths about Singleness (Crossway 2019) [amazon], and the only thing I didn’t like about it was the cover.

7 mythsAllberry, a single pastor and speaker at RZIM, deals winsomely about the church’s various misconceptions about singleness (not all of which are consistent with each other): 1. Singleness is too hard; 2. Singleness requires a special calling; 3. Singleness means no intimacy; 4. Singleness means no family; 5. Singleness hinders ministry; 6. Singleness wastes your sexuality; and 7. Singleness is easy.

What I liked most about this book was that it wasn’t particularly directed at single people. The target audience is believers who want to think about biblical teaching on the subject and includes married and unmarried believers. It would seem to me that the topic is pretty relevant to readers of the New Testament given that Jesus (certainly) and Paul (probably) were single. How can we be so quick to see marriage as a virtual requirement for ministers and the “highest calling” for others?

Allberry says, in his conclusion:

When I started this project, my initial aim was to write about the goodness of singleness . . . . But through it all I have been increasingly preoccupied with something else – not the goodness of singleness but the goodness of God. The issue is not whether this path or that path is better, whether singleness or marriage would bring me more good. The issue is God and whether I will plunge myself into him, trusting him every day.

P. 149. If that’s not relevant to us all, I don’t know what is.

Highly recommended.

“Check your childlessness privilege.”

current reading 2Lyman Stone, writing for Vox, adds* his voice to others suggesting that we are having too few children in the United States.

He looks at polling data to show that while the Total Fertility Rate is now only about 1.8, the number of children desired is much higher. He explains why this shortfall is bad for our society, and proposes some fixes (all interesting) but this paragraph brought a grin to my face:

If getting ahead in your industry requires happy-hour drinks three nights a week, that’s unfriendly to families and may be preventing your female colleagues from having the family they want. Check your childlessness privilege. If you never volunteer to babysit your friends’ kids, but expect to benefit from their Social Security taxes, you’re a societal free-rider.

I would have never thought to say this, honestly.**  There are many other rewards to having larger-than-replacement families, but this Vox article does raise some points we don’t often hear.  Lyman Stone, “The US needs more babies, more immigrants, and more integration,” Vox (Nov. 10, 2017) [link].

Worth reading.

*I guess he “added his voice,” but I did not see the article at the time.

**He also proposed special parking privileges for minivans, but that proposal is way too late for us.

Worth reading

Three stimulating articles, without any obvious common theme except the most common of all — a fallen world with fallen people in it:

current reading 2
“Ultimately, God is still good. And he is still enough.”  Bekah Mason, “Finding My ‘True Self’ As a Same-Sex Attracted Woman,” Christianity Today (June 2017) [link].

“I am capable of any sin. And God loves me in spite of my sinful nature.”  Sanya Richards-Ross, “My Abortion Broke Me, God Redeemed Me,” Christianity Today (June 2017) [link].

“What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right?”  Malcolm Gladwell, “Thresholds of Violence,” gladwell.com (October 19, 2015) [link].

But still, there is always the offer of God’s grace.

Post-Obergefell

issue_55f8274286f99 In post-Obergefell America, Evangelicals and other orthodox Christians will be unable to outrun our freakishness. That is no reason for panic. Some will suggest that a Christian sexual ethic puts the churches on the “wrong side of history.” Well, we’ve been on the wrong side of history since A.D. 33. The “right side of history” was the Eternal City of Rome. And then the right side of history was the French Revolution. And then the right side of history was scientific naturalism and state socialism. And yet, there stands Jesus still, on the wrong side of history but at the right hand of the Father.

Interesting article by Russell D. Moore in the current issue of First Things (“Evangelicals Won’t Cave: Why evangelicals will not be surrendering to the sexual revolution,” October 2015 (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/evangelicals-wont-cave).