Charlie: Three weeks ago, after working out and doing a few errands, I came home and realized that I had left my jacket in the locker room of the gym. This wasn’t the first (or probably the last) time that I had done something like this. It was more like the twentieth time that I’d left something-a book, a pair of socks, a shoe, a set of headphones, a towel, a lock, you name it- behind, only to discover the loss the next day or the next week, depending upon how regularly I happened to be working out at the time. I usually take some comfort in rummaging through the huge pile of clothing and workout gear in the lost and found boxes (there’s too much for one box!) and reassure myself that at least I’m not the only forgetful one around here. On this occasion, rather than turn around and go back to the club (it had after all been a long day), I decided to save myself the drive and the 25 minutes that the round-trip would take and pick up the jacket the next day when I returned to the club. But of course I didn’t go back the next day. Or the next. And when I did go back, guess what? That’s right, no jacket. So I got to save myself a trip but it cost me a jacket.
Unfortunately, these ‘situations’ seem to be occurring with disturbing (to me) frequency. Most of the time I chalk them up to the inevitable consequences of a full schedule and a busy life, and fortunately the losses are usually minor and at worst, inconvenient. Still, I hate to lose stuff, particularly when the loss is due to my own negligence. I often tell myself that it’s good practice for me to strengthen my ability to practice non-attachment and letting go, which I think it is. I’m getting so much practice these days that pretty soon I’ll be able to experience losses without even blinking an eye, which is a good thing since all things, including life itself are impermanent. As many of us know, however, there is a world of difference between believing something to be true and knowing it in your bones. Shortly after my experience of losing my jacket I got to have another experience that help me to ‘get’ the teaching about loss on a deeper level. Sometimes we have to experience things ourselves in order to get it. If we’re lucky, however, we can get it through the experience of another. In this case it was the latter.
Linda and I were recently staying with a friend in Santa Barbara during a weekend in which we were teaching a couples’ workshop. On the morning after we arrived we were having coffee relaxing around the kitchen table. A friend of our friend was also staying in her home and she came out of her bedroom shortly after we sat down and we all enjoyed the luxury of being able to slowly ease into a new day without any urgent commitments that needed to be filled until much later in the day. “Pauline” had been living with our friend Jan for a while. “Since the fire”, she told us in response to our question of how long she had been living there. “The fire” that she was referring to was the “Tea Fire” that occurred in the hills above the city of Santa Barbara last November and destroyed over 200 homes. “Mine was one of them”, Pauline told us. I lost everything. The fire moved so quickly that I was lucky to escape with my life. One minute there was nothing, not even any smoke, then the next minute the flames were everywhere. I didn’t even have time to grab anything to save. I just ran for my life.” The fire reached over 1800 degrees Fahrenheit in a very short period of time and it incinerated everything in its path, including Pauline’s home and all of it’s contents. She was renting the house and had no insurance for any of her property. “When I went back the next day to see if any of my possessions had survived the fire, everything was gone. Utterly destroyed. I had a lot of jewelry, and the metals, both silver and gold had all completely melted.
The pain of seeing the total devastation was so great that I couldn’t even bear to look at the remains of my home. It was a total loss.” This was about two months after the fire, but Pauline told us that she still felt somewhat confused and disoriented. “Sometimes I go to look for a piece of clothing or a book or a cooking utensil and then there’s the awareness that it’s gone. I go through that all the time, but I’m starting to get used to it. I guess the reality of the situation hasn’t completely sunk in yet. I’m still kind of in shock.” And yet despite the depth of her pain, Pauline is quick to point out that not all has been lost. There are some aspects to this situation which have been gifts, even blessings that I never could have experienced were it not for the fire. It sounds kind of corny but in a very real sense my faith in humanity has been restored by the incredible generosity and support of so many people that I have encountered since the fire.
People like Jan, who I barely knew before the fire who opened her home to me and has provided a place for me to stay while I’m regrouping and getting my life back together. I’m absolutely overwhelmed by the caring that I’ve received by so many people.” Jan herself nearly lost her home to the fire which came within a couple of hundred feet of the house and miraculously changed course sparing her home. “I’ve made so many friends, since the fire, as a result of the fire, that I never would have made otherwise, good friends! These are people that I didn’t know two months ago with whom I currently feel close and trusting and even loved. It’s unbelievable! It seems like the blessings of what I’ve gained from the fire outweigh the losses that I’ve experienced. I mean, it’s all stuff! Just stuff. Stuff can be replaced, but people can’t. I’ve only been living here for a short time, but I have more good friends now than I’ve had after living in other places for years. And I have my life. I can’t imagine taking that for granted again after coming so close to losing it. I feel so happy to be alive and healthy that I can hardly find words to describe my gratitude.
Life is so precious. Every moment is irreplaceable. I wish I hadn’t had to go through the fire to realize this so deeply, but I am really grateful for all of the good that’s come from it. There is no doubt that the overall quality of my life is much richer than it was before the fire.” Sometimes it takes a great loss to remind us of what truly matters and to give us the experience that helps us to put things in perspective. It was only a few days later that I misplaced another item of clothing, this time a hat, and got to put my newly-reminded awareness that “It’s all just stuff” to the test. And do you know what? Letting it go was easy!