I thought of this poem today, “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop:
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.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Loss is an inevitable part of life, yes, but when it happens to you - I mean, when it happens to me - I find I am unprepared. There is a sense of injustice, an automatic, “Why me?” I know St. Ignatius would have something to say about my attachments there.
Right now in the daily Mass readings we are in the midst of hearing the tale of Jonah, who fled Nineveh when God asked him to stay and speak to the unrepentant people. Why did Jonah flee? Not because he was afraid to talk to them, but because Jonah found the Ninevites’ behavior so terrible, he went ahead and decided they deserved their fate.
“Jonah was greatly displeased
and became angry that God did not carry out the evil
he threatened against Nineveh.”
Jonah made himself judge.
Jonah reluctantly returns to Nineveh, gives the town warning as requested, then scurries back out of town to pout and wait. Keep in mind he’s also already spent a few days inside a whale, and is clearly feeling the victim.
“Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it,
where he built himself a hut and waited under it in the shade,
to see what would happen to the city.”
It’s almost comical, how angry and self-involved Jonah is.
But God is patient, and he does something nice for Jonah, which is that he makes a gourd plant rise in the night over Jonah’s resting place to provide shade. We learn that “Jonah was very happy over the plant.” In a turn of events, God sends a worm to destroy the plant, followed by burning winds, both of which are enough to cause Jonah to say, “I would be better off dead than alive.”
It is the question and answer that follows between God and Jonah that struck me:
“But God said to Jonah,
’Have you reason to be angry over the plant?’
’I have reason to be angry,’ Jonah answered, ‘angry enough to die.’
Then the LORD said,
’You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor
and which you did not raise;
it came up in one night and in one night it perished.”
Holy cow. You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise.
Apply this everywhere: you are concerned over the child, the grades, the promotion, the dinner plans, the ministry, the date, the marriage, the relationship, the house which cost you no labor and which you did not raise. Do not give me that the house “cost” you - everything, everything is a gift from God. And if he deems it suitable to take it, he will, and that is that.
So I called to mind this line from Job, who had everything taken from him, and who therefore can be our authority:
“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb,
and naked shall I go back there.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
blessed be the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21)
Loss is inevitable. A lot of times we actually mourn our future, or the imagined loss of the things we think we deserve - not even the materials things we have, as Jonah has done. Of course, his sense of loss is about more than the plant. Really, he is indignant that God will not bend to his will. I am seeing that any sort of indignation over loss really is this, at its heart. Our task is to learn to love and accept God’s will, even when its meaning is unfathomable, even when it is, after all, a disaster.
JD Flynn tweeted this quote from soon-to-be Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman: "God will give us what we ask, or He will give us something better." I pray I receive the grace to believe it.