Getting Lost

“Where you are and where you are going is the same.”
—Storyhill, “Give Up The Ghost”

Joel%20Portrait

I pulled my car over to the side of the road and checked the map on my phone. I wondered which way I needed to go. I was traveling on a back road near the northern California coast and Google maps was coming up empty because I had no phone signal. I was trying to decide between two different roads and I had no idea where either led and how exactly to get where I thought I wanted to go. I stared longingly down each road hoping for a guiding impulse one way or the other. I checked my phone again, still nothing but the pulsing red dot that is supposed to indicate my location, but all that was showing was a grid with a grey background. The very reason I was out for a drive that day was to clear my head and seek some direction for my life. Ironically, there I was at a crossroads with no direction at all.

I feel lost in life, very lost…and tired, very tired. I tell people who ask with any amount of sincerity that I am currently in transition. I’m transitioning in my career, my life purpose, my home, and my relationships—you name it, I’m transitioning it. Of course being in transition implies a “from what” and a “to what.” I have a rough idea about the “from what” as the past is somewhat clear. The “to what” is much more problematic…and frustratingly so.

In one of Plato’s dialogues a character named Meno asks Socrates this profound question: “how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is…To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know”? When you are looking for your lost car keys you have an image of what they look like, and you know right away when you find them. But what if you’ve lost yourself, or a conception of your life, or your way in the world? How do you go looking for something you have no idea what it looks like…or even if it looks like anything? And how would you know when you found it?

Meno’s question has been on my mind a lot lately as I face a deep and troubling form of being lost. In my case it’s not just that I don’t know how to get from A to B, it’s that I don’t know what or where A and B are, don’t know who the traveler is, and why he would want to go anywhere in particular. I am haunted by questions like: who am I, what is my life about, what is it for, where am I going, what am I going to do, who is going to go with me, etc. These are “questions that can make or unmake a life,” as the poet David Whyte says, “questions that have patiently waited for you, questions that have no right to go away.” Being lost is to be faced with these immensely important and weighty questions for which I have little by way of substantive answers.

As you might imagine, I want desperately to be found. I crave familiarity in others, the surroundings, and myself so that my head can stop spinning and my heart can be at ease. There’s an abundance of anxiety and annoyance in being lost. As a case in point, the well-meaning advice to “just take the next step” visibly bothers me. Of course in some sense that statement is true, clichés are repeated for a reason. It is true that it’s easier to steer a moving vehicle than a parked one; and sometimes you have to act without knowing how it all might turn out; and sometimes you have to choose a direction without knowing what the final destination might be. All wonderfully true.

But I’m still troubled. For one, I’m hung up on the word “step.” It seems to imply that I have some idea that what I, or others, conceive of as the “next step” actually constitutes a step rather than an aimless lifting of my foot off the ground. As if I have any idea that the supposed “step” is really in any particular direction. As if in thinking about some action as a step in some direction is somehow the right way to think about my life progressing or getting unstuck. Interestingly, survival schools will teach you should stay put when you are lost in the woods, and not to move. I wonder why no one gives me that advice.

I read somewhere recently that the word “lost” comes from an Old Norse word los meaning the disbanding of an army or the making of a truce. I got to wondering how this meaning applies to my situation. I used to think that by careful planning I could harness my life, map it out, make it manageable, and get it under control. Being lost has changed all of that, and has presented the opportunity for a new shift of perspective—a shift from merely realizing that I have gotten lost to engaging myself in getting lost. Taking a cue from the Old Norse meaning, in getting lost I disband my intention to master the world and to control the ways and means and ends of my life. I also call a truce between myself and the world, when the world is no longer conceived of as against me and in need of subduing.

In this sense, getting lost is to actively embrace the unknown that penetrates every aspect of my current locale. Even though my lost body, heart, and mind long for the known, I trust that what is already known, whatever that may be, doesn’t encompass the possibilities for my present life. Those possibilities, although unknown and perhaps unimaginable, are at my very feet, in the pit of my clenched stomach, in the unrest of another sleepless night, and in my current context as muddled and confused as everything seems.

Getting lost requires silencing much of the usual noise in my life and listening carefully for a new voice. I listen until my urge for immediate action and panicked movement settles into an acceptance of my place in the world as one who is lost. Strangely, I choose and choose to listen for my own voice until the clearest voice is no longer merely my own but a grace filled chorus arising from the complexity and chaos. The mere exertion of my will to be found is superseded by the call of some “absorbing errand” as Henry James would put it. An errand for which no choosing could have foreseen, and choosing alone will never accomplish.

They say that explorers are always lost because they never have been where they are trying to go, and even upon arrival they rightly wonder if where they are is actually where they think they are. In an important sense everywhere is home to the lost explorer, or at least someone’s home. To be purposefully lost, then, is to trust the hospitality of every place. Being lost and tired are pre-conditions for rebirth and transformation; they serve as signposts along a path that is by its very nature hidden. They are part of shaking off who I was and getting tired of that old self so that I can see the world again. Getting lost is not really optional if I want to live an authentic and heart-filled life. As Rebecca Solnit has said, “That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.” I suppose that being on the right track is at times actually not knowing which track I am on, and perhaps not knowing whether a track is even an adequate metaphor for my journey. After all, getting lost is a journey in its own right, with or without tracks.

Becoming Found

Dante famously begins his Commedia with these lines:
Joel%20Portrait
In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in the dark wood
Where the true way was wholly lost….

These words provide a strikingly accurate description of my life over the past few years. I recently wrote in some detail about the experience of getting lost in life, and now I find myself reflecting on what has happened since I awoke in that dark wood and engaged in the process of finding my true way…of becoming found.

There’s something comforting about having a clearly defined life story with beginning, middle, and end. Life doesn’t really come to me like that, however. Instead, I find that I’m always in the middle of things, in medias res as literary theorists would put it. I think the stories we tell about our lives should reflect this important aspect of being unfinished, perhaps most especially stories of getting lost and becoming found. As existentialist philosophers are quick to point out, we first find ourselves existing in the world and only later define or understand ourselves. My story is not complete or resolved, but here is a brief account of my current journey in the middle of things.

“True love will find you in the end,” sang the late Daniel Johnston, “don’t be sad I know you will…don’t give up until true love finds you in the end.” Having spent a good amount of time getting lost, I have a great deal of interest in the promise of being found by so many different aspects of life: love, work, purpose, etc. I’ve learned the hard way (as if there is any other way) that becoming found is not quite as straightforward as I had originally hoped.

Depending on the circumstances, more often than not rescue experts suggest that when you are lost in the woods you should not attempt to move at all, but rather stay put and make yourself visible for those who are looking for you. This strategy, of course, assumes that someone is coming for you. I had hoped that my own becoming found would happen along those lines. I had wished that I could just sit very still and my life purpose would come find me, followed by true love, and financial abundance. It seems to me now that this is an important characteristic of being lost—the absolute immobility that comes from being completely disorientated. That immobility is, of course, completely understandable although it took me a while to give myself the space to just be unmovable. A significant shift happened when I could finally relax into the disorientation, as being disorientated provides a fresh perspective on the world where everything is new, even if a little blurry.

“This is a promise with a catch,” the song continues, “only if you’re looking will it find you. ‘Cause true love is searching too. But how can it recognize you unless you step out into the light”? This last line has been on my mind for several years without ever really noticing the profound insight. It was only in the process of getting lost that it dawned on me that central to my becoming found is the continual intention to step out into the light—to be seen. It’s not merely a hunkering down and self-protecting, although there is that too. Rather, becoming found is mainly a paying attention to how I show up in the world with and for others, and showing up is an exercise in becoming visible in more authentic (and frightening) ways.

There is a strange tension in the process of becoming found. It involves holding the realization that no one is coming to find me in the way I had hoped, along with the understanding that everyone is searching for me in a very different way. As the poet David Whyte puts it, “creation is waiting breathlessly for each of us to take our place…to begin the one journey only you can take…to occupy that one complexion of creation that no other element in creation can occupy.” Becoming found, then, is the ultimate opportunity to be seen in my most authentic place; in the most vulnerable way…as if my life depended on it because of course MY life does depend on it. Interestingly, we function as search and rescue teams for one another. We are on the lookout for the true selves of everyone we meet—constantly hoping to greet the lost ones, the hidden ones, and the marginalized selves as they step into the light.

There’s a sense in which getting lost and becoming found are the very same stance in the world. For me both began as experiments in being seen, even if some of those experiments happen to be visible only to myself at the moment. Finding my true way is a kind of evidencing, manifesting, and illuminating even when I find myself in the middle of the dark wood. Being lost had exposed the ways in which important aspects of myself had been covered over and kept in darkness. In a surprising way I had to be found by myself before being found by others. As the song indicates, there’s a kind of faith involved in this process, a belief however small that what I am seeking is seeking me. A belief that as I step into the light I will become found because I will at last be recognized for who I am…and true love, work, purpose, and who knows what else will find me in the end.

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