Getting Off the Tracks - Embracing the Inevitability of Loss
You find yourself walking along railroad tracks. You’re not exactly sure why or how you got there but you don’t question it. You’re having a lovely little stroll. Content in the present, there’s nothing you’d want to change at this moment.
However, being that it’s a railroad, there happens to be a train barreling down the tracks. You don’t take notice as you stare off into the distance, taking it all in. The train is still a ways away, so you’re not in immediate danger. But make no mistake, it’s coming.
There's two simple outcomes here. Either you continue in this blissful trance, enjoying your stroll, until you get flattened by the impending train. Or you can wake up to the reality around you, notice what’s coming, and take a few steps off, avoiding certain death.
Reading this from the outside, you’re probably thinking this is dumb. We’re reasonable human beings here which, for all our quirks, generally try to preserve our well-being. So, with no intention of dying, of course we’d want to come to our senses and get off the tracks, right?
Well, the truth is every human on earth faces a logically equivalent scenario. And you know what? Too often we opt to remain ignorant of the impending doom. We either consciously, or subconsciously, bury the reality of our situation, despite the unequivocal certainty of it and then face the consequences when it inevitably hits us.
Are we insane? Yes… and no. We’re all aware of the existence of the train. But honestly, no one really teaches us to look out for it. Or more importantly how to get out of its way.
So what the hell am I even talking about?
The train in this situation is suffering. More specifically - suffering from loss. We all go about walking down the tracks of life, engrossed in our mundane routines, enjoying a relatively banal existence, until a train of loss-induced suffering comes flying by uninvited.
We may not know when or how severe, but it's coming. And that’s an absolute certainty. One day you will wake up to a harsh reality. You lost your job. You’re getting your heart broken. A relative died. There are countless misfortunes that await every single one of us on this planet. And it will suck.
The bad news is the train is not the loss itself. There’s no avoiding that. Regardless of anything we are capable of doing, loss is coming. The good news is that we can evade or at least mitigate the suffering that ensues in the aftermath of that loss. By becoming brutally aware of it and preparing ourselves for when it comes, we can gracefully step aside and let that suffering fly by, leaving us unscathed as we continue to go about our lovely stroll of life.
Recently, I was faced with the prospect of some
pretty dramatic loss. I woke up one Monday, logged on, and realized the vast majority of my savings were gone. Wiped out. In the blink of an eye. Years and years of working, saving up for the future, vanished.
When it finally hit what just happened, I felt a rush of despair. How could I let myself be so stupid? I knew this risk existed and yet I figured there was no rush to take action. It had been on my to-do list for weeks to move that money around. I should have seen the writing on the wall. How the hell am I going to recover from this? All my life plans had to be reconsidered with this dramatic change in financial situation.
A barrage of questions and doubts like this came at me like a tidal wave. It was overwhelming to say the least. And yet, somehow, an inexplicable sense of clarity arose. A serene, level-headed awareness of the situation, my capacity to change it (or lack thereof), and the new opportunities presented.
Fortunately, I had taken steps to get off the tracks.
I’ll preface this with saying that I’m not some stoic yogi guru who’s mastered my mind and is about to walk you through my training and sell you my online course. No, I just happen to think about this kind of thing quite a bit and realized it saved me from extraordinary mental anguish. So, by distilling this here, I’m hoping to shed light on a universal problem.
The way I see it there are 2 necessary steps to stepping off the proverbial tracks:
Understanding intellectually that loss is unavoidable and the different forms it can take
Integrating emotionally all the feelings associated with loss
Now if you haven’t thought through this first before you may need brace yourself. It’s not an easy pill to swallow. But there is a 100% probability that you are going to face varying degrees of gut-wrenching loss during your time on this earth. There’s not a single thing you can do or say that will prevent this as it’s an inescapable truth that’s part of the human experience. You should become intimately familiar with this fact, understanding it’s an unnerving reality that will one day come knocking.
I never said this would be easy but you have to let it sink in. Come to grips with it. Think through all the ways loss could manifest in your life and recognize them as real possibilities. If you’re feeling uncomfortable that’s good. You should naturally have an aversion to contemplating things that conjure up these emotions. But keep pushing through it’ll be worth it, trust me.
If that part was hard, pour yourself a drink for this next part. It’s one thing to comprehend loss with your rational mind, nodding sagely as you recite profound aphorisms and mumble memento mori. But it’s an entirely different endeavor to really sit with the emotions it invokes, delving into the depths of your heart as you grapple with the weight of that prospective pain.
Imagine the agony if someone close to you in your life now simply wasn’t there tomorrow. Imagine the fear that’d creep up after an unexpected call from your boss as he awkwardly stammers through the conditions of your termination. Imagine the misery in the eyes of your lover as they tell you they’re leaving you. Imagine these scenarios and more. Really play out in your head exactly what this would feel like - how you would react, what the mental chatter would sound like, how you’d go about coping with it. Let those feelings wash over you, engulfing your senses, until you can physically taste the bitterness of each experience.
The good news is it’s not all doom and gloom. You get to open your eyes. Come back to your present and feel the overwhelming relief that comes with knowing those things haven’t happened. For everything you just viscerally lost in front of your eyes, you should feel immense gratitude that you still have them in your life.
It's important to note that I’m not advocating for this being your steady state. You shouldn't wake up every day and do this. It would be nothing short of masochistic to perpetually dwell in the realm of worst-case scenarios, intentionally drowning in the sorrow of events not yet happened. However, this is one of life’s absolutes we’re dealing with so it’s a worthwhile exercise to prepare for what’s to come and lessen its potential damage. Think about it just like that – an exercise. In the same way you subject yourself to short term pain during physical exercise to strengthen your body, you perform this mental exercise to harden your resilience and alleviate future suffering.
The day I lost my savings in that hack, sympathy and pity poured in from those around me. All well-intentioned support of course, but the reality was I didn’t need it. In the same way we all indulge in the fantasy of what we’d do if we won the lottery, I’d run the reverse thought experiment playing out what I’d do if I lost it all, how exactly I would go about my life if I woke up tomorrow with nothing.
While this was the first time this had happened in practice, it wasn’t the first time I’d felt that bottomless pit in my stomach from the unthinkable disappearance of all that I’d worked up for up to that point. And so just like I envisioned, when it happened rather than falling into a state of hopeless despondency, I realized the facts of the situation. I’m still me. My family’s alive. I’m healthy. I have a job. All of those other hypotheticals haven’t happened. The only thing that changed was a few mere digits on a screen. How could I allow that to crush me under the weight of undue suffering?
This perspective wasn't forced either. I didn't have to brute force this line of thinking. It simply arose naturally as the events unfolded and I put to practice all the work I'd done up until that point.
Back to the railroad - you’re still walking along, the train’s still hurtling towards you. But now you’ve heard its whistle. You’re patently aware of the situation in front of you and the repercussions that come with it. With the choice laid out in front of you, will you choose to stubbornly overlook the impending danger, continuing to live oblivious to its existence? Or will you wake up from this dream of blissful ignorance, come to grips with reality, and get off the damn tracks.