On Losing Things

by Gil Lahav

The other day, as I was enjoying the promise of a new day that my morning shower usually suggests, I reached for my only bottle of rather unremarkable shampoo only to discover that it was missing. As I stood there, blankly staring at the shower head spewing warm water in my confused face, I began to meditate deeply on one of life's great conundrums: the mysterious passage of ordinary things into oblivion. There are countless objects that will become lost by the time you finish reading this sentence: credit cards, music cassettes, address books, plane tickets, good pens, business cards, chess pieces, homework, passports, weekly organizers, floppy disks and - of course - the house keys. Sometimes the strangest things get lost, like that blasted bottle of shampoo. Where could it possibly go? It's certainly not something that I'd absent-mindedly slip into my back pocket or leave in the car between uses. And the bottle of shampoo isn't like some kind of pet that could understandably live a more meaningful existence outside of my shower. Yet the bottle manages to run off somewhere. Has anybody been using my shower without my knowledge?

There's a purely theoretical question that we rarely stop to consider when we are looking for something "lost": Just how long does something have to be missing before it is really "lost?" Five minutes? Ten minutes? Long enough to make us upset about its absence? What always amazes me is how obsessed I can become over something lost that I am trying to find. Sometimes I look for what I've lost for longer than it would take me to replace it. As an incurable armchair psychologist, I can't help but formulate some theories to explain this irrational behavior. Perhaps the lost thing poses a new challenge to me, in the same way that looking for a lost treasure might. Looking for something lost is kind of like playing hide and seek with aliens who can disappear on you or just impair your memory. Having new keys made just wouldn't be as fun as wracking my brain, trying to remember where I last saw them, or playing detective and trying to infer where they might be. Did the butler use them as the murder weapon in the salon? On the other hand, maybe it's all about ego. Perhaps I simply don't want to believe that I can lose things. After all, such a belief is hardly flattering, and - even worse - it could turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy, and make me lose even more things. Or it could lead me to conclude prematurely that I have lost something which, with a little more searching, could be found. But then again, when can I conclude that I've "really lost it?" Or maybe when I'm spending more time than I should looking for something lost, I'm actually in denial. As long as my search continues, I can still cling to the tantalizing hope that I haven't really forever lost whatever it is which, at the moment, I can't seem to find.

Now there are two ways to find something which is lost: by accident, or by swearing, grunting, and tearing the house apart. Although far more time consuming, the second method is for several reasons much more satisfying than the first. Searching long and hard for something lost creates a restless suspense, and a tension that is wonderfully relieved when the lost item is finally found. Finding a lost object in this manner also strengthens the belief that we are in control of our lives: it enables us to conclude that we never really lost whatever it was that we temporarily misplaced. On the other hand, accidentally finding the lost item can create the frustrating impression that our lives are actually governed by chance: we lose something by chance, we diligently look for it with no success, and then some day - by chance alone - we find it.

Unfortunately, that something has been lost is rarely a sufficient explanation for why it is missing. If your boss is expecting a report from you today and you can't find it, your boss would instantly become somebody who has never lost anything, and you would become somebody who can tell a very interesting story about what happened to that report. Sometimes I wonder what happens to all of those things that are lost and never found. Are they being used by all of the people who are missing in action? Do they somehow make their way to the Bermuda Triangle, so that anyone who finds them will himself be forever lost? The fact that things are lost can have quite an unfortunate impact on human interactions. How many letters were never received because they were lost in the mail? How many winning lottery tickets were never claimed because they were lost? How many romances never developed because the phone numbers that were exchanged couldn't be found? How many heads smell unhygienic because a bottle of shampoo disappeared without a trace? And yet, some things that maybe should have been lost (like an article on losing things) somehow manage not to get lost at all. It's all very confusing.


More stories from Christopher Reeve issue:

Christopher Reeve Interview

NASA's Neurolab

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