My laptop was stolen -- I feel like my life is gone!

Why can't I get over this? It's not like my family was murdered, or I'm a refugee -- it was just a laptop!

Published October 18, 2007 10:29AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Several months ago my house was burglarized. I live a relatively simple, frugal life as a graduate student, so the intruder (or intruders) made off with the five things of value I own. Luckily the place wasn't trashed, and none of the things I really cherish -- like family mementos and treasured souvenirs from my travels -- were damaged or taken.

I've dealt with other minor crimes in the past, but never anything that so violated my personal space and psyche. In the weeks after the break-in, I experienced the gamut of expected emotional reactions, including anger, fear, victimization, self-blame and regret. Each day it was something else, but over time things returned to normal. I feel comfortable in my home again, I don't have regular flashbacks to that evening when I walked in and realized what had happened, and I'm looking forward instead of back.

There is one thing, however, that I've not been able to fully resolve. The items stolen included my laptop and my backup hard drive (which I kept in a different place, but the burglar managed to find and take anyway). My life was encapsulated in that stupid little plastic gray box. I've been in graduate school for five years now and all my work was suddenly gone -- every paper, every report, every shred of anything related to my research and studies. The loss of my school-related stuff was huge, but a lot of my personal life was also archived on that laptop. I had all my photos, calendars and contact lists on that computer as well as a bunch of more quirky and obsessive things that helped me feel like I had a life and an existence (a record of every menstrual cycle for the last seven years, every love letter I'd ever written, an outline for a cheesy romance novel, an ongoing list of essay ideas I could use when I was finally done with graduate school hell and could pursue my passion, writing humor). In addition, I had other things on there that will keep me vigilant about identity theft for years to come.

Essentially, I felt like a huge part of me was taken. I've tried different approaches to dealing with the resultant void. For example, I tried to place my experience in a larger, more important context by reminding myself that my loss was minuscule compared to what victims of war, genocide, and natural disaster face every day. I tried to be Zen about it by considering the meaning of my attachment to material possessions. My New Age tactic was trying to convince myself that fresh, new beginnings can be wonderful things and sometimes you have to wipe the slate clean (literally) in order to see different paths. There was also an existential perspective where I stepped back and thought about how I'm a flesh and blood human being and no digital record could ever capture and define who and what I am. Nothing has really worked.

At best this experience has been a huge inconvenience for someone trying to finish a dissertation and at worst it's really shaken up my sense of being in this way that part of me finds profound and another part of me finds trivial and petty (in that big, universal scheme of things way I mentioned earlier). While I've been able to recover most of what I need to continue on with my dissertation, the reality is that there's a huge volume of things I'll never get back and I still feel like a chunk of me is gone forever. My friends and colleagues have been sympathetic, but no one I know has had anything like this happen to them. I get the sense that they don't truly understand what I'm dealing with mentally and emotionally.

I want this loss to stop hanging over me like a dark cloud. I should have had my laptop and backup hard drive stored someplace more secure. It wasn't a good idea to centralize my life on something so portable. I won't be able periodically to look through my work from the last five years and remind myself that I did accomplish something during a graduate school existence that has had a few highs and an awful lot of lows (the subject of a different letter). I know all these things. What I don't know is how to let go and move on. How do I stop feeling like a part of me is gone rather than just a lot of files and documents? How can I re-conceptualize this experience in a way that allows me to fill in what has become -- without sounding too melodramatic -- a gaping hole in my being?

Struggling to Understand My Digital Existence

Dear Struggling,

As you probably know, I don't so much issue instructions as I just share my personal experience and response. And while what I have to say may not be of immediate assistance to you, it is all I can do. But I must say this, lest a myriad of readers remind me that I missed the obvious: Folks, back up your laptops -- on some storage medium that is not in your apartment.

I should take that advice as well. But your question causes me to confront something else, something I have been learning in this job through daily encounters with impossible questions. That is: how to recognize when we have reached the limits of our cultural assumptions -- and what those cultural assumptions are. I think it can be said that generally we will know we might have moved from pure phenomenological encounter to cultural assumption at the moment that we ask a question there is no answer for. That is where I think we have to stop and examine the assumptions that lead us to ask the question, and when I say "cultural assumptions" I am talking about questions like "Why would God do this to me?" or "Why are my ancestors tormenting me?" or "Why has random fate chosen me?" or "Why can't I get over this faster?" When we are in the pure realm of "This happened to me and this is what I am going through" I think we are in fairly universal territory. I mean, a villager comes running up the road and says, "The bridge fell down." That is what I mean by a universal experience. But then the villager sits in his tent that night crying because he believes his ancestors are tormenting him, that they made the bridge fall down. that is what I mean by cultural assumption.

You lost something. We can all relate to that. But I would ask, Why do you think you should be over this by now? And, concerning your various methods of thinking about it, what does it mean that they have not "really worked"? What would they do if they worked? Would they restore your life to the way it was? Would they allow you to forget it? I'm not sure that's a realistic expectation.

What can you reasonably expect? Can you reasonably expect to give yourself a hard time about this for a while, and feel frustrated at the amount of unexpected work you have to do, to feel grief about the precious things you have lost, and to feel confusion about some of the things that you think were in there but you're not really sure?

Sure. That sounds reasonable. I don't imagine there is any way of getting around that. But what else is going on? Like ... are you tormenting yourself about it? Are you guilt-tripping yourself? Maybe you are harboring feelings of hatred toward yourself, blaming yourself. So there is the notion of self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness will not change the past. But if the problem is your own relationship with yourself, where you are agonizing and hating yourself, you may need to confront this and accept the fact that you are human. We don't think we are going to be robbed. So we don't take every conceivable precaution. So self-forgiveness may be in order. You may need to make it quite explicit. You may need to look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are forgiven. I know it sounds odd, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

But still, what interests me is this question of why a particular culture asks particular questions. Why is it that we Americans, for instance, seem to expect things to be over so fast, and to be healed and back to normal after losses? Is it in our culture of safety and insurance?

It causes me to ask, really, what is the role of intellectual endeavor, of knowledge, of understanding -- is understanding like a magic spell that can make the past disappear? Are our various techniques for meditation, our philosophies, our belief systems, our technologies of the spirit and our intellectual methods, are all these things essentially supposed to be emotional cures, or drugs, to make us feel like we used to feel before whatever happened happened? What about tragic emotion? Why should we expect any act of the mind to overcome reality? Is that not the realm of spoon-benders and levitators?

I can say from experience that when something awful happens we generally feel bad about it for a long time. And of course we ponder it from every angle, and we seek relief from the feeling. We seek to get the feeling in perspective, which you have done. You would do well to continue looking at it from different angles, placing it in perspective. And you would do well to stop saying that these ways of looking at it did not really work. Of course they worked. They can't change history. But they can help you organize experience and keep it from overwhelming you.

I may want to stay on this topic for tomorrow as well, because I have a question in mind, and it really is about fate, about how we confront reality, and how reality changes us.

At some point in our lives, our own experiences affect us in ways that run counter to our habitual expectations and assumptions, and it is at that point that we either construct even larger delusions, or we give up and say yes, this is me, this is what happened to me, this is how I feel. It is at these moments that we have to encounter difficulty not as something to be cured but in a more elemental sense as simply the way it is.

This is a good thing. We stop trying to stamp out this reality, this knowledge of what happened, this feeling of loss, this unbalance, this void. We stop trying to make this thing tiny or kill it off. Instead we expand so we can carry it. When we do this we actually expand our capacity for experience.

By the way, I think this is a great premise for a novel. Your laptop is gone. You try to reconstruct your life. You could write a novel and put everything in there. It wouldn't be memoir or fiction or autobiography, exactly. It would be an exploration, through actual struggle, of this central aesthetic and philosophical question: What was all that stuff that I lost, where is it, can I get it back? Can I construct that world?

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