Lost and Found: A Different Way to Think About Your Life

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A very old question asks you whether you think of your glass as half-full or half-empty. But permit me to make a suggestion: think of your life in terms of what you’ve lost and what you’ve found over all the years you’ve spent on the planet.

Take all the victories and failures, the things you can do and the things you can’t anymore, the friendships you’ve lost and the ones you’ve gained and put them in a basket. Don’t forget to include what you’ve learned over the course of your life — learning in terms of knowledge found in books and the knowledge that only comes from experience. Add your greatest joys and your worst moments. Be sure to fill the bushel with physical skills and abilities too, talents you had once upon a time and all those you still possess, including the new ones.

If you do this, I’ll bet you find that your container includes some of the following:

  • That you are wiser than you used to be, in some small ways and maybe even a big way or two. Perhaps this is part of what is called Maturity.
  • That, especially as you approach mid-life, you are less easily rattled by some of the things that used to overwhelm you. To some extent, you’ve probably learned to cope or even mastered fears you thought you never could.
  • That you might not be as spry or as fast in a footrace, but that you care less about it than you did in your youth.
  • That you act more like the tortoise and less like the hare because you know (most of the time) that “slow and steady wins the race.” Or maybe just because you’re not quite as fast as you used to be and have figured out a strategy to deal with that, kind of like a baseball pitcher who loses his fastball and still wins by dint of craft, guile, and perhaps developing a new pitch.

Glass_half_full_kind_of_day

I’m sure, as you reach for things to put into the basket, that you will remember how much some of those that are gone mattered to you, and how some still do. But, I’ll bet you’ll be surprised to see that you’ve replaced a number of them, perhaps with people or activities or skills that compensate for many of those that have disappeared. Maybe not all, or, just maybe, just as much or more than what you’ve lost.

What we are talking here is about adaptation. Adapting to life and to aging. Grieving and moving on. Licking your wounds and coming back to find out what the universe still holds that is good for you. And that sometimes what is good for you is also good for others around you, in part because of the feeling your generosity gives you.

Not everyone can do this. If we’ve had too many losses, some of us don’t even go to the “Lost and Found” Department to find out whether what we value is there. Part of the problem is that no one told us that the “Lost and Found” Department of Life isn’t like the one in school or in a department store. In those places, if you are lucky, you find exactly what you lost — the thing itself.

No, life’s “Lost and Found” Department is different. It holds every one of the things you’ve lost and doesn’t usually give those exact items back, all precisely as we left them or as they left us. But if you go there and look hard enough, you just might find objects or capacities — people or experiences — as good as what you lost, a few better, a number worse. And if you travel there with the right attitude, you can find things that are priceless. One of those surprises is not actually a thing. It is the knowledge that it is often possible to adapt to those that are truly gone.

It’s a little like the way a heart breaks, a love is lost, and one finds that it heals or someone else enters your life or other people and activities compensate you. The “Lost and Found” Department of Life doesn’t work perfectly, of course. You must be willing to make the best of it. But, there is one thing that is essential if you are to give it and life a chance.

You have to go there and see what it contains. Without that, there is no finding what you’ve lost; or something new; or something better; or something that will do.

No guarantees, not even safety. But life is full of surprises, as I said. It might be time that you forget about looking at glasses half-empty or half-full, and look instead beyond what’s been lost and see what you can find in that new place, the yet to be discovered things in life’s “Lost and Found.”

Good luck to you. Good luck to us all.

This article was inspired by Frank Bruni’s February 1, 2014 New York Times essay on the subject of Peyton Manning and aging, called Maturity’s Victories.

The top image is the Lost Properties Office symbol at a railway station in Poland. The author is Mohylek. The second picture by Pete Unseth is called Glass Half Full. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Emptying the Glass of Life: Bela Bartok

pouring-light

The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same glass differently.

Let’s think of the glass as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now look at the goblet again and ask not if it is half-empty or half-full in terms of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question.

What will you do with it? What will you do with whatever is inside the glass?

Here is an example of how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64 in 1945, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be further enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death-bed that he had hoped to leave the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” still occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

He could have said that he wanted to leave an empty glass rather than an empty trunk. The point is that he wanted to expend everything he had inside himself on the job of life. Spill it all out. Use it all up.

Bartok  believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself; his responsibility to his fellow-man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give; to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him and those that he had developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not only because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They create or recreate because they cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different from the attitude of those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heroes, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate their model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It rejects the withdrawn self-protection that insures that we will miss-out on what we really want; the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced,  the life that might have been, “if only…”.

Bartok had no choice in his failure to “leave with an empty trunk.” He composed one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia that killed him. It wasn’t for lack of trying that his “trunk” was still full of creative ideas.

The rest of us don’t have the same excuse if we leave life with some part of the best of ourselves held in abeyance — at least not yet. Why? Because we still have time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our trunk with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, that goal was to empty it of the things that were internal. Many are torn between the two. A life of consumption or a life of creation. Clearly there is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have had the time to have done more, not consumed more.

I can think of worse philosophies of living.

This post is a reworking of one I published about four years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

Leaving Life With an Empty Trunk

I recently watched a documentary on the life of Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death bed that he had hoped to have left the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” occupied by what he could yet compose, had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

It strikes me that Bartok’s sense of responsibility to life is admirable. He believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself, his fellow man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give. In other words, to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him.

Creative people often feel chosen. They tend to believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They write, in a way, because they cannot do otherwise. Many people consider this to be something similar to the religious calling often described by clergy.

What is your calling? Perhaps you don’t feel you have one. But even if you lack this sense of driveness and purpose, Bartok’s example might still provide you with a model for life. I think that Bartok’s notion isn’t really very different from those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heros, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate this model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects the alternative of dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It will also, I suspect, reduce your chance of regret. And what is regret? According to Janet Landman, it is “the persistence of the possible,” the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the effort not made, the life that might have been, “if only…”

Yes, the idea of living so that one might leave with “an empty trunk” has appeal.

I can think of worse philosophies of life.