It was the late, great Janis Joplin who wailed the liberating lyric: FREEDOM’S JUST ANOTHER WORD FOR NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE.” I do not remember much else about the song, though I clearly remember the feeling of the singer behind it. It would be easy to dismiss her as a tragic heroine of a bygone age, and yet she left an indelible mark on a now aging generation. Though I was relatively young when “Me and Bobby Magee” commanded the airwaves, those words seemed to captivate my attention in a way that initiates an inquiry I was clearly meant to undertake. At the time I thought the statement was the forlorn sentiment of a drugged out depressive. Now I recognize the spiritual significance in a declaration I was born to embody.
The past several years of my life have been marked by losses of many kinds. The loss of a home, of a career, of a spouse, of numerous friends and family members. The loss of youth and of a certain level of physical flexibility. The loss of roles I thought I was in the world to play. I have lost a sense of being identified with many things I once clung so dearly to, including a vast number of perceptions and ideologies. With every loss there was grief and sadness, chaos and confusion. There was a deep sense of no longer knowing who I was, or who I am meant to be. That was indeed a scary place to dwell. I tried to distract myself in a myriad of ways, until I finally topped long enough and began to feel beneath the chaos a growing sense of clarity and spaciousness. I began to taste the beginnings of a freedom I had always sought to claim. I guess I erroneously thought that freedom would come from acquiring the things I sought to have, and from stabilizing the self I strove so hard to become. I thought freedom would come from addition, and yet I painfully learned that liberation actualized is the way of subtraction. The great surprise was that the more I seemed to lose, the freer I began to feel. Bondage was the baggage I myself was choosing to carry. It wasn’t so much the thing as it was the attachment to the thing. Sometimes that took the form of material possessions. Sometimes it came via the outworn relationships I tenaciously held onto. Often it came in the habitual ways in which I saw myself, and from which I interacted with my world. My own perceptions were my prison. My mental habits were my hell. In the deep recesses of my inner being there was a constant questioning of who I would be without this or that, him or her. If I no longer had this role to play, how would I show up, and what would I become? Wanting desperately to be free of who I had been, I was also too afraid to let go and to trust in the self that was longing so to be. And so loss became a relentless teacher and a strangely freeing friend.
In the ultimate sense, nothing is ever lost. It is for us humans to embrace and to embody that relative truth until it becomes an actualized experience. Everyone I have ever said goodbye to still dwell within me in a very real and intimate way. The memories I have of days and situations gone by are merely an internal glance away. The identities I no longer choose to cling to have given way to a spaciousness and a serenity that is both liberating and transformative. Those old identities are now like favored friends that took me on a sacred pathway I needed to tread, and then left me at the appropriate time and place.
And now, without a personality identified “who” to cling to, I am finally free. Without attachment, everything we fear losing is recognized as already ours. When there is nothing left to lose, we realize we are what we have tried so hard to gain. And realizing I already am what I have tried to become, I am deeply, truly, profoundly free. Freedom really is a word for nothing left to lose. I can never loose who I am, and that is all that truly matters. Every perceived loss is turned to gain when the chains of identity and attachment are loosed. And I have come to know that freedom is the most precious of all human virtues. Perhaps I would not have known that without the multiple experiences of loss I have grown through. Who can say? I only know that the freedom I feel today is a gift beyond what can be lost, and for that, I am truly grateful.
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