The afternoon was sunny, crisp and flawless. I was in Boston for only the second time in my life. And I was trudging down the sidewalk on my way to the police station, feeling like the loneliest most forlorn person in the world. The night before, my well-used 4-year-old laptop had been stolen from the hotel where I was staying. I had carelessly left it on a chair in a hallway, and someone had picked it up, along with all the documents of my professional life and every last scrap of my personal information, including my tax returns. It was maddening because the computer itself was old and virtually worthless, so if the thief took it to sell, he was probably sorely disappointed. If he took it to steal my identity, he hit the jackpot.
I had discovered the theft just before bedtime, so on this sunny afternoon I was exhausted from a night of broken sleep. I was sad and disappointed that someone was unkind enough to steal something that meant so much to me (and, surely, so little to him), that I had been so careless, that the hotel staff seemed unconcerned, and that the police department refused to take theft reports over the phone — no matter how difficult that made my life. The police station was a good hike from the conference center where I had been attending meetings, and I got lost finding it, but I refused to pay for a cab to report my laptop stolen. That would have been adding insult to injury. Call me dramatic, but I felt like a tiny impotent speck in a big cruel world.
A theft like that, where you are not mugged or robbed at gunpoint, is disconcerting. It feels as if the item has vanished into thin air. You can’t help wondering if you are crazy, if you put it away somewhere and didn’t remember or if, maybe, you never had it to begin with. An item that seemed so solid and permanent in my life had simply vaporized. And the fact that I didn’t see who took it left me with nowhere to pin my anger and blame, no convenient scapegoat toward which to vent my emotions. So there I was, with no one to be angry at, instead having to face my own vulnerability. It was just a laptop — a laptop whose contents were backed up, even — but it was yet another reminder that, in this world, anything can be taken from us at any moment.
It’s a universal human experience to have things we love ripped from our grasp. And now I’m not thinking about electronic gadgets, but about our sentimental items, our homes, our jobs, our pets, our friends, parents, spouses — even sometimes, though I shudder to type it, our children. And in these moments when we are the victims of a capricious universe, we always have two choices. We can find someone to blame, we can wish it away, we can lock the doors and tell ourselves that people suck, that it’s a horrible world and we have to look out for ourselves. Or, we can remember that, in our loss, we are experiencing what it is to be human. Millions of people have felt this way before us — and are feeling this way right now — and we have the chance to build our empathy and compassion. We can vow that, the next time we see a person suffering, in a way small or large, we will try to be kinder or more helpful. We can vow to give them whatever it is we wish someone had given us in our time of need. I have promised that, from now on, whenever I find a lost item, I will do everything within reason to reunite it with its owner.
Now that the incident has passed, I remember the warm and friendly clerk at the police station who took my report, a wonderful counterpoint to the curt and officious types I had been dealing with all morning. I remember the acquaintance who sent me a personal note on Facebook, consoling me for my loss, minor though it was. I remember my mother texting me on the train to the airport, telling me she would give me her own laptop if it would make me feel better. I could feel her love surrounding me in that crowded, impersonal train. It felt like fresh air.
When I got home to Raleigh that night, I stood on the porch and watched the lightning bugs flashing in the trees. I wondered how I could have doubted, just a few hours ago, that this world is marvelous and magical. I guess that’s the challenge we face: Trying to make our minds big enough to encompass both the beauty and the cruelty, both the jerks who steal our laptops and the mothers who love us beyond reason. We cannot have one without the other, no matter how much we might want to. And we cannot fully experience the joy of living without feeling our vulnerability and powerlessness. The universe (or God, or Allah, or the Life Force, or whatever you want to call it) takes away the things we love, but it also gives us the ability to love, which, if you think about it, is pretty damned amazing.