The Blessings of Being Lost

In 2003, I studied abroad in Glasgow, Scotland. After playing in a pub band and making friends with a bunch of older Scottish musicians and artists, I had the chance to engage people and parts of the city that I would have never encountered otherwise.

One of those people was a man named Jimmy. Jimmy was animated and loud, played about every instrument you could hand him, and sang songs late into the night. As the only Texan playing with the band, he always asked me to play Johnny Cash and Willy Nelson songs. Jimmy also liked to have a good time, and that meant that when you were with him, you never knew exactly what would happen or who you would meet.

One afternoon, Jimmy asked if I wanted to ride with him to a friend’s house. I can’t remember exactly what we were doing. Just a visit? Picking up an instrument? All I remember is what he said to me.

I noticed that the trip was taking longer than expected. Even though I didn’t know the neighborhood, it looked like we were driving around the same streets multiple times. The usually very talkative Jimmy drove in silence as we passed the same landmarks over and over again. He then pulled the car over to the side of the road, and in a heavy Glasgow accent smiled and said, “Aaron, do you know the blessings of being lost? When you are, nothing else matters!”

On one level, I knew that Jimmy was right. And, I knew that we were lost.

Being lost usually has bad connotations, and I understand why.

Confusion doesn’t feel good to our brains and spirits. In a physical sense, not knowing where you are can be dangerous, and the DNA we’ve inherited from our ancestors likes to know where we are so that we can find food, shelter, and get back to our community of support. In an emotional and spiritual sense, we humans are meaning-making creatures who like to know where we are and why. We’ll make up a story about the things around us even if it isn’t accurate, because it feels good to know where we stand in the order of things.

There are lots of ways to be lost. Can’t find the right address. Feeling alone and don’t know whom we can trust. Unsure about the future of our careers, relationships, navigating addiction or grief. There are plenty of ways when the normal map we thought we had for our life doesn’t pan out, and we don’t know exactly where we are supposed to turn next.

Like most things in life, being lost can be a powerful teacher.

In his poem, “Lost,” the American poet, David Wagoner, writes:

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.

Treating wherever you are in your life as a “powerful stranger” isn’t an easy thing. But, it means that even the feelings of disorientation and confusion have something to teach us, if we stop to “ask permission to know [them] and be known.”

While outside help can be a good thing, too much of it can interfere with our ability to find our own way. Jimmy and I got lost in the city that day before the era when everyone had GPS in their car or on a phone in their pocket. My children might never know the experience of being physically lost like that.

Finding our own way

There is some evidence that our reliance on things like GPS is taking away the ability for some of us to navigate on our own. The way that our brains form maps and way-finding skills need something more than instruction. Nora Newcombe, a psychologist at Temple University says, “You’re not actively navigating — you’re just listening to the voice.”

Some of our ancestors knew their way by the stars or currents. Some of us know the terrain of our city by heart through practice. How do we know the way to the center of who we are?

When we are lost in our lives, lost in making meaning, that other inner compass becomes so important. Yes, we need guidance, companionship, and support from the outside. In the toughest of times, we need people who prove to us that we are not alone and offer good and tested wisdom – or who will at least listen.

However, if we have practiced relying too much on what others say or think we should be, when we become lost, we will not have the tools to find our way. Being lost (and we all will be at some time) will be so much harder if we give up the responsibility for knowing how we feel or who we are to institutions, colleagues, family, or our culture.

What can we do to develop that inner compass and guidance?

  • First, find time for stillness and quiet each day, even if just for a bit. See what appears in your heart and spirit when the noise of the world has settled.
  • Pay attention to your emotions and thoughts. Each of them has something to teach us. They do not always reflect reality. However, we can trust each of them to teach us something about the life we have and the one we wish to experience.
  • Remember that guidance and input from others can be a wonderful thing. But, like you, even the wisest people are just people. All of us arrive with our own faults, agendas, and hopes. Guidance from the outside can often tell us more about the person delivering it than ourselves.

Jimmy was right about one thing. When you are lost, nothing else matters in the whole word. It raises the stakes, forces necessary questions in our lives, and demands our attention. Being lost can, sometimes, be a great blessing.      

If we have relied on answers outside of ourselves most of our lives, being lost (really lost) can be a terribly difficult thing. Like the skill of navigating by the stars or the currents, being lost in our spiritual lives flexes a muscle that we might need to develop or didn’t remember we had. It asks us to stop and rely on our internal voice and skills again. It doesn’t promise things will be easy. Far from it. It does not promise immediate meaning or blessings. But it can, even then, have something good for us in it.

Being lost can force us to pay attention to our lives. It can build our capacity for self-love and care. Being lost can ask us what and who are most worthy of our trust. And if we are lost, it asks us where we want to be and where joy and meaning are for us. Blessings, for sure.

As the poet wrote, “wherever you are is called Here.” Paying attention to what is right before us, wherever we are, can be a source of home, right here and now.

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