It’s a little linguistic change that’s been bothering me for a while. Murray used to be defeated now and then; I’d hear about another Man United victory. As a pacifist I recognise the way military vocabulary invades (oh yes) our speech, but given the combative nature of competitive sport, it’s a best fit even when fans gleefully celebrate annihilation or massacre. Now the noun suffered in the online news headlines is no longer defeat. It’s loss. And every time I see it I feel the faintest shudder. It’s the wrong word and its register is N/A.
You see, at my age loss is as devastating as it’s ubiquitous. The past is heavy with it and the future defined or overwhelmed by it. At sixty I’ve lost the father I adore, several dear friends, four unborn babies, stretches of my internal organs, a marriage and many human connections that once mattered and held. Not to mention hair – a loss that carried others with it for many years: my sense of femininity, identity, self-esteem. Mine is not a sob story. My life is full of love. No one escapes loss, which is after all a euphemism for death. And I honestly don’t know which hurts more – losing someone we love or loss of love itself.
Some losses can go out of fashion, virginity being the most obvious example – once a source of shame and regret but now abandoned with the same eagerness as a ticking cartoon bomb. The loss of innocence in our children goes is dreaded in emotional anticipation by parents who know their child will be lost to someone no longer immunised by Imagination’s magic and no longer devoted in dependence. And when as parents we realise we have lost – or forfeited – our children’s faith in us, we’re deeply shamed. I fear for children losing faith in the strutting adults who shape the world with its climate crisis, wars and inequality. Then there’s loss of faith in a religious sense, a commonplace ‘grown-up’ admission that’s almost a boast for some but for others is more of a wound. Loss of trust in a relationship, whether with God or a partner, can bring a burden of guilt and when it makes victims of us there’s a risk that next time it will lower our resilience. In its own diverse way loss seeps out of the past and has a cumulative way of undermining the present.
We talk about loss in terms that can be physical – sight, hearing, mobility – and when lives are changed by such losses, society at large often struggles to accommodate their new shapes, leaving those affected with a sense of no longer belonging. But even if such loss is only a kind of generalised fading with age, later life brings the sense of a lost time, world and self – before loss began. We like to think of wisdom gained in compensation, and yes, with loss we find insight, definition, clarity. An understanding of what it means to be human, i.e. to suffer loss in many forms. A gratitude for those gifts we value in direct relation to the pain of losing them. Of love, of peace. Of beauty in all its forms, some of them unexpected or overlooked until, busyness over, we recover time to connect with the light through the trees.
Of course poetry, music and art are infused with loss. I don’t suppose I’ve ever loved a novel whose author ducked it. When I’m thinking of blurbs or tag lines for my own work the three L-words usually present themselves first: love, loss and longing. They’re inseparable and fundamental and in fiction if they’re missing they leave behind a sink hole called reality to undermine its structure with a crash.
Maybe it’s intensity we crave when we dramatize sportsmen or women with balls. But Murray never really suffers a loss. He’s defeated now and then but he’ll win again. He nearly lost his best friend, he’s a father now and he was so affected by the Grenfell Fire tragedy that he offered to donate his Queens winnings in order to support those who lost everything because they had so little to lose. When we watch refugees around our world, in camps, or tiny boats or sleeping on Paris streets, we see their loss of living as they knew it – but not of dignity, not of humanity and perhaps not even of hope. Sporting defeats can be followed by triumphant victories and vice versa. There is rise and fall and it’s the moment that counts. But loss? That’s a big, gaping word for something that can overwhelm everything else. Recovery can be slow and it may only ever be partial because loss lies too deep and wide for reversals. We live with it until we die. Nothing is more intense than its heartbreak and grief and nothing is more universal. So in some part perhaps we savour it because we know instinctively that it keeps us real. We embrace it because we know it is the shadow of happiness. No technology or status, success, possessions or ego can protect us. It’s who we are.