The Life-Changing Magic of Losing Shit

Christina Xu
Jun 3, 2015 · 4 min read

Last week, I lost my backpack while waiting for a connecting flight home. Among the things it contained: my laptop (along with a 90% finished draft of last week’s Chrysaora Weekly post), an SLR camera (with two lenses) that’s been to as many countries as I have, travel toiletries, a new piece of clothing I hadn’t yet worn, and a few years-old traveler’s checks I’d aspired to finally cash the week before. It’s very unlikely that it’ll turn up.

Losing this stuff feels especially ironic just a month after doing a systematic purge of my possessions inspired by The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’s KonMari method, which asks you to hold each object in your hand and consider whether it inspires joy, then discard the ones that don’t. Following its edicts ruthlessly, I earmarked more than half of my possessions for donation, sale, or the trash. I rearranged my room and closet, devoted time each day to putting things away, and treated myself by buying a new backpack, one that could last for years, to be thoughtfully filled with everything I needed day-to-day.

Four overflowing bags tagged for release into the wild are still in my room. The backpack filled with my most-used possessions is gone.

Against the backdrop of everything terrible happening in the world, a lost backpack is nothing. It’s just stuff, and not even a lot of it. I’m not terribly materialistic, and I’m extraordinarily privileged to be able to replace everything I really need and to have backups of most of the data I lost. But despite all the rationalization and perspective I can muster, the fact is that losing something of this magnitude is traumatic. Days later, typing this on a new and improved laptop, I still feel the panic tight in my jaw.

While trying to figure out a way to shake this panic, I discovered that I was not the only one turning to yoga for strange forms of bodily release.

I take full responsibility for losing the bag, but that doesn’t actually mean shit. The truth is, losing things is always a form of entropy enacted on you by the universe, a rude reminder that circumstances can change in an instant for the most nonsensical reasons. For me, it’s left a long adrenaline hangover that makes my thoughts frantic and my focus wobbly. It makes everything uncertain — will I get it back? Do I need a new one? What if I lose it again? I replay the minute in which it happened in a thousand different ways, to no avail. Things could have been — may still be! — not-lost. But they aren’t.

Somewhere in the muck of frustration and guilt, however, is the secret thrill of starting over.

I’d never physically lost a laptop before last week, but I’ve dealt with plenty of catastrophic hard drive failures. Over the course of my teen years, most of these computer deaths were eerily synchronous with the ends of my adolescent relationships. Digital artifacts from each era that I would have kept due to sentimentality or inertia vanished, forcing me into a new mindset whether I was ready to move on or not. I got really good at rebuilding my identity from scratch.

As I got older, the transitions from one phase to my life to the next became less abrupt. Rather than wholesale restarts, change now looks like layers slowly added on and peeled away. I’m used to the accumulation of self and stuff made possible by Time Machine and growing up. Even this time: it would take just a few hours to restore all of my music, photos, writings, and screenshots to my new machine, but I haven’t done it. Instead, I’m taking some time to imagine new workflows and file structures; to learn which files and applications I genuinely love; to wait until I crave my old data so much that it’ll be a relief, not a routine, to get it back.

The silver lining is apparent. Left: a text message I sent to my partner an hour after the incident. Right: my roommate’s response to the news.

So, too, with my camera — I could never have gotten rid of my faithful travel companion for the last 6 years voluntarily. Now that it’s gone, I can admit to its decreasing usefulness and explore, without guilt, what options might be better for my life today.

Involuntarily losing shit is the ultimate version of the KonMari method. It brutally takes things away at random and makes you fight to get them back so that you remember and reaffirm the value of each one.

It’s also a reminder of what’s fragile, and what’s robust. This weekend, I spent hours staring at the latest draft of the previous post, trying to calm my nerves enough to write; failing. I worried that the delicate systems I’d established to maintain momentum and make sense of my life had been permanently, irreparably damaged. But though progress felt slow, they recovered. On Monday, I started over and wrote this.

Christina Xu is an organizational designer, ethnographer, and enabler based in New York.

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