The bewildering nature of modern society – its incessant, demanding change, shifts in employment, remuneration and technologies, and a sense that big decisions are taken elsewhere – means that a feeling of loss is commonplace today in the UK and other developed societies. Yet such is the overwhelming nature of these changes, and so deep-seated are feelings of confusion and dislocation, that we don't have the time or inclination to stop, pause, and understand the many facets of what loss is, or its many different manifestations. Not all cases of loss are necessarily negative.
To many, loss is having something taken away, feeling powerless, and being diminished. There is the patent Scottish feeling of loss, which through our history has transmuted into a palpable lament of loss. For some, this feels like an open, sore wound on our collective psyche. The various traumatic moments of our past underline a sense of injustice and wrong, which requires public recognition and action in the present.
Recently at a Scotland's Festival of Ideas event that I organised in Dundee – on what is missing from culture in Scotland – the writer James Robertson concluded that he saw no circumstances in which loss was positive. This would be the prevailing feeling of many of us when we first think of the subject, and have had something taken away which diminishes what feels a part of ourselves. It came in response to a conversation beforehand between Kapka Kassabova, author of 'Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe,' and Madeline Bunting, whose most recent book, 'Love of Country,' explores her connections to the Hebrides.
Kassabova is Bulgarian-born and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. She explored the different memories of loss that she feels have commonality between her home country and her adopted home, observing that there is 'something Balkan about the Scottish Highlands.' Bunting made the case that such a sentiment nearly always went down the road of mourning past injustices, whereas there was a case for trying to listen to the silences of the landscape. This included hearing 'the voices of the dead,' meaning the memories of past generations and communities, and that 'ghosts can be a form of company,' which involves more than remembering injustice and feeling grief.
One of the main distinctions between different kinds of loss is between collective and personal, although they are often connected. Collective loss seems to be one of the modern characteristics of contemporary Western societies. This can be seen across employment and security, in retreat to the march of automation, and the effect of the internet on the high street, to generational disquiet about millions of younger people feeling that they are permanently locked out of the employment and housing markets. And it was this kind of loss that James Robertson viewed nearly entirely negatively.
More high octane are the insurgent, populist movements which rail against the status quo – from the experience of Scotland's indyref to Brexit, Trump, and Corbyn's Labour party. But this can also be said about the march of right-wing authoritarians across Europe, from Marine Le Pen to Hungary's Viktor Orban and the Polish Law and Justice party, as well as left-wing movements such as the Greek Syriza before they won power, and the Spanish Podemos.
Loss in some of these situations is present on different sides. Take the experience of our indyref. Many in the No campaign felt that they were having part of their identity assailed and undermined, namely, their Britishness. They felt that the whole debate was predicated on people having to choose between Scottishness and Britishness, and however much independence supporters said it wasn't about this, they felt that one of the consequences of the debate was that their Britishness was under threat and contested.
Yet feelings of loss were also present on the Yes side. Many Yes voters, particularly those who could directly recall the immediate post-war period, felt that Scotland had arrived at such a huge debate because of what has happened to Britain in recent decades. One aspect of the campaign for some on the Yes side was almost an elegy for the promise of a past Britain of humanity, compassion and decency, which many thought was irretrievable.
Many forms of collective loss have an upside, in that when some groups lose their power and privilege, others gain more opportunity and chances. How else can we understand the challenges of the social movements of the last 40 years, and the fight for gender equality and LGBT rights, along with the current #MeToo movement and greater visibility of trans issues? All of these involve elites being held to account for past practice and injustices, and the loss here is one of uncontested, unchallenged power.
Similarly, in Scotland, much of the noise and confusion of recent times has been against a backdrop of the decline of traditional power and the dislocation of once omnipotent authority. One seldom explored way of seeing modern Scotland is that of it littered with a host of lost tribes which once dominated our land: from the Church of Scotland to the Labour party and even Glasgow Rangers FC. All of these held respect, and, in some, fear and even hatred, but all are diminished compared to what they once were, with little chance, even if there is an upturn in fortunes, of returning to their former glories.
Personal loss is perhaps how many of us experience such emotions. The loss of a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship, or dramatic change of personal circumstances. This is often hurtful, painful and upsetting, particularly in the immediacy of any change and its aftermath, but there can be a positive aspect.
For example, the premature death of my father, who had been a wonderful dad when I was young was a release for him – and for me. He had never recovered from my mother leaving him over a decade previously, despite this occurring at the relatively young age of 46. He not only had a broken heart for the rest of his life and never had another relationship. It was more than that.
He went from being someone with a gentle, grounded centre, and love of life and other people, to someone who was filled with anger and sadness, and was a difficult person to be with. His death, which was tragic in so many ways at the age of 60, released him from this and allowed me over time to slowly remember and mourn the good, loving father of my childhood. The same was true for my mother.
This experience isn't straightforward, tidy, or easy to express. I went through several stages of how I felt about my father, and just as importantly, how I felt about how I felt. Apparently, this is a common condition in how people deal with bereavement and grief, but for each of us, this personal reflection is unique to us and often goes unsaid, even to those closest to us.
Loss is in many ways part of what it is to be human. It represents change, movement, disruption, reflecting and coming to terms with it, and feeling emotional disquiet and often pain.
One of the central pillars of Buddhism is understanding the temporary, impermanent nature of life. Loss in this worldview is just another part of the natural order of things, which allows us to come to terms with an awareness that the human condition and life is based on an immense precariousness and fragility.
There is a wider currency to this which is relevant to the state of modern societies, and that is how we navigate loss in an age after religion, or more accurately, organised Christian religion. Such religion used to give us a set of structures and rites of passages for navigating the big moments of life: birth, death and marriage, as well as a moral compass for dealing with those other challenging moments. Western societies don't have that any more, and while the overthrow of authoritarian religion is a blessing, it has resulted in a culture of confusion and ambiguity about right and wrong.
But I think it goes even further than that. If loss, whether personal or collective, is part of what it is to be human, then we need to be able to give it a place, words and language. This means dealing with some of the collective losses that people feel beyond that of psychotherapy or a greater take-up of mindfulness courses.
Instead, there is an urgent need to give voice and form to the collective losses that so many of us feel, in which we don't have a sense that we have power and voice in our lives. If we don't act on this soon, the consequences could be many indeed. This terrain has so far proven fertile for hate-mongers, snake oil salesmen, and dodgy populists across the West. If we aren't careful, we will allow them to further whip up fears and demons, and we could, as a result, see more challenging times – even more so than that currently experienced with Brexit and Trump. We have been warned as a society. Don't leave loss to the hate-mongers and populists.