Mastering the Art of Losing

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.

– from “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

Caring about anything is always a risk, because, as Elizabeth Bishop said, the art of losing isn’t hard to master.  Everything has the potential to be lost, and as soon as you really care about something, the thought of losing it is terrifying. But I don’t think life is really worth living without the things that can break our hearts.

There’s a tendency to feel like we can protect ourselves by keeping our distance, but I’d argue that mostly we’re just finding a different way to hurt ourselves that feels less frightening because we have some measure of control over it. You can choose to shut things out, but by the time you’ve gotten close enough to recognize that it’s risky to care about something, odds are good that you’ve already started caring about it and closing the gate isn’t going to help.

Loss is a central motivation for a whole swath of book, comic and movie heroes – Batman, Harry Potter, John Wick, and Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy to name a few. My mother is a mystery buff and when I was trying to find one she hadn’t read to send her for Christmas I noticed that it seemed like a disproportionately large percentage of them revolved around dead or missing children. One of the reasons Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events is such a popular parody is because of all the serious novels and movies that fall not too far shy of it. But why is it so compelling to have a protagonist who starts their journey with a broken heart?

It’s not just that loss is part of the story or one of the things that happens along the way, like it so often does in real life. Loss seems to be an inextricable part of their origin as characters. It’s been used so often I’d started to think it was just a cliché, a lazy shorthand way of providing emotional motivation for the narrative, but now I wonder if it’s something more. I wonder if we’re actually trying to write the story backwards, starting with the point we’re most afraid of, where everything seems unbearable and moving through it to a point where it’s alright again?

Maybe watching loss is like a vaccine or a countercharm, designed to inure us to the effects in our own lives or ward them off. Perhaps we feel like experiencing loss vicariously will somehow help us know what to do when it happens to us. It could be that it’s just a disaster that we can’t stop looking at, but I think it also stems from a need to see someone make it through terrible things so we believe that we can survive them ourselves.

Harry Potter, for instance, is one of those stories that seems like a close relative of the Baudelaire children’s unfortunate series of events. I’d say there’s a fine line between an archetype and a cliché, and although J.K. Rowling navigates it adeptly, at times you can almost see her hand reaching down to pluck away anything comforting enough to interfere in his heroic journey. He loses his parents and is left, to quote Professor McGonagall, with the worst sort of muggles imaginable who make him live in a closet under the stairs. They deny him any connection to the magical world and make him feel crazy. He finds his godfather only to have him die just as he’s offered Harry a home. By the time he’s fifteen Harry has already mastered the art of losing, but he keeps on building the kinds of connections and relationships that could break his heart because those are the things that are worth fighting for.

When Peter’s mother died at the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy I thought it was clichéd, but the rest of the movie played out around chosen family so nicely that it ended up seeming more in keeping with the broad strokes of an entertaining comic book. All of the characters have lost their place. Peter’s essentially an orphan who was kidnapped by space pirates. Rocket is a genetically modified raccoon-like creature who used to be sheriff of a planet that was one large insane asylum. Drax’s wife and daughter were murdered, Gamora is the adopted daughter of the man responsible for the genocide of her people, and Groot is possibly the last remaining member of an alien race of tree-people. It’s a funny movie, but the character origins are all pretty tragic when you get down to it.

Convincing themselves they’re fine with the way things are and they don’t need each other keeps them at a distance from the possibility of losing more, but they’re drawn together in spite of their own resistance. It makes me think about loss as a vacuum that creates both the space and need for new meaning. Characters who feel content and safe where they are in their lives generally aren’t moving toward or away from anything, which makes them not very interesting to watch. Having a hole in their lives motivates them to fill it, or at least makes them susceptible to the world trying to rush in even when they don’t want it to.

John Wick’s motivation for retribution could have been clichéd, but they dodge it cleverly by having his wife die of natural causes and his puppy get shot instead. The dog was her final gift to help him through his grief, and it is a metonym for the loss of his wife, but it’s sad and affecting in a different way than a human death. It also helps that the bad guys just aren’t as bad as he is. That dog was the only thing standing between John and nothing important left to lose, and there is definitely an art to all the losing that he rains down on them in his vengeance. I love that in the end he chooses a rescue puppy to take home with him.

I think we keep creating stories that begin with tragedy and rise out of it because there are some lessons that can never be repeated too many times. No matter how well versed we become in the art of losing, the prospect of it never stops seeming like a disaster. Watching characters we love risk getting their hearts broken over and over again reminds us why it’s worth being brave enough to risk it ourselves.


alex MacFadyen is currently practicing losing farther, losing faster.

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