On Losing Things

In Essays, Philosophy, Stoicism

In 2015, I had two burglars come into my house during the middle of night. They managed to enter by painstakingly, and silently, removing my front door. Quite an impressive feat.

Fortunately I received a phone call which woke me up, and this disturbed the two invaders who made a prompt exit. I wasn’t hurt, and my house wasn’t particularly turned around, but I did notice that my Leica M3, a lovely film-camera from the 1950’s, was missing.

What was really interesting was my reaction to this event. Around five years ago I had my bicycle stolen within the first week that I had bought it, and that really crushed me.

This time, armed with Stoicism, the loss of my Leica (a far more expensive item) actually didn’t lead to any bad feelings.

There were three techniques that I used that allowed me to control my emotions and accept the loss.

Firstly, it was the use of Stoic acceptance. Everything is life is borrowed (even life itself!) and will someday have to be given back.

Secondly, I also used negative visualisation to understand that things could have turned out a lot worse.

Finally, I also reflected on what is important in life, and what is not, and I realised that a material object such as my Leica wasn’t so important when compared to the way I act, the way I think, and the way I treat other human beings.

Stoic Acceptance

Stoic Acceptance is an interesting technique. We cannot expect that in life things will always turn out the way we want them to, and it is impossible to consistently bend the outside world to our will.

In a nutshell, Stoic Acceptance is about understanding what we can control, and what we cannot control. I have written an extensive essay on this topic, and I urge you to read it before you continue.

So now that we aware of what we can control (our thoughts and actions), it is an obvious conclusion that we cannot control events, but only our reaction to them.

So while I could not control whether my Leica was stolen, I am in control of how I react to it being stolen. Hence I can choose not to be upset about the loss of a material object.

This is the key to understanding Stoic Acceptance.

Negative Visualisation

Negative Visualisation is something that usually undertaken before an event happens. It’s actually extremely simple, you imagine what may be the worst possible outcome of the upcoming event, and you imagine how you would feel at the time, and how it would affect your life in the future.

I always reach one conclusion: Things simply cannot be that bad.

Generally speaking, the worst possible outcome in many scenarios is death, which is not a bad thing per se, because it is completely natural, and something that it completely natural cannot be bad. This is not to say that I have a death wish. In most cases I would rather live than die, but I also have to accept that I will one die perish, and that it will be out of my control.

Negative Visualisation does take some practice however, because if you are not ready it can cause strong negative feelings and also increase your perception of how risky life is.

A secondary technique employed in conjunction with Negative Visualisation is to do it after the event, and realise that things are really not so bad. I published an essay on this very topic entitled It Could Be Worse. Let me, as usual, modestly quote myself:

It could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you’re sleeping and toss it out the window of a moving car.

~ Tyler Durden, Fight Club.

This is the technique that I used once I realised that my Leica was missing. I came up with the following scenarios:

  • They could have taken many things that had more value in house. I was very lucky that I didn’t leave my laptop in the living room like I normally do. That would have disrupted my work for a few days.

  • I could have been away for a few days and the burglars could have ransacked the entire house.

  • It could have turned into a physical confrontation and someone may have been injured or worse.

Looking at it this way, the entire affair almost could not have gone any better.

Focussing on the Important

In any endeavour, whether personal or business, having a laser-like focus on what is truly important, and letting everything else slide into the background, is key.

My Leica was not the core of my life, so I have not actually lost much, if anything.

In fact, we could very well argue that the burglars lost more during this night than I did. They lost yet another piece of their integrity, their honesty, and their decency as human beings.

You see, every time we take an action, that action actually changes us, albeit slightly. Some actions, like murder, can change us dramatically. Other actions, like eating an unhealthy meal, hardly change us, but repeated over time can have serious consequences.

So if our actions and our thoughts dictate who we are, we must be extremely careful in what actions we partake in.

However, I don’t know their particular situation, and I am a foreigner living in a third world country, so perhaps I am not able to understand fully how poverty and certain situations lead genuinely good people to commit crimes. Perhaps these two burglars were brothers who need cash to help for a family member’s hospital treatments, as there is no free health-care in this part of the world.

So what is important for me? Well, not my material possessions. My integrity, my honesty, treating other people in a way that I think is correct, and trying to make small but positive changes to the world, even if that is just briefly putting a smile on someone’s face.

So what happened?

Over 2500 years ago they had already worked it out. Epictetus wrote:

The ship sank.

What happened?

The ship sank.

This message urges us not to fall into the trap of narrative fallacy, which means fabricating stories out of emotional reactions and misunderstandings about what has actually happened.

So what actually happened to me?

I lost a camera.

Yet I gained far more by stopping to reflect on what happened and then writing this essay.

So yes, losing my Leica has had a positive affect in my life.

That’s Stoicism.

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