Rev. Josh Pawelek
“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” These words from the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau ring true to me. They echo the wisdom of more ancient spiritual teachers. The Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, said “Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects…. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail.” Jesus said “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” These teachers are not referring to loss in the sense of losing something or someone. They mean lost as a state of being: not knowing where you are, where you’re going; not knowing what to say, how to act; not knowing how to get back to the familiar, or if it’s even possible to do so; not feeling the solid ground beneath you. Being lost can be frightening, overwhelming, but it also offers blessings. As it takes us out of our everyday experience, away from the familiar, the comfortable, the routine, it invites us to encounter the world from a different perspective. It challenges us to find sources of strength and creativity in us we didn’t know we possessed. It may even require us to ask for help, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our world actually gets larger. In the process we learn something about ourselves. We wake up, we stretch, we grow, we break through, we transform. These are blessings. Getting lost from time to time is a good thing.
This makes sense to me, but I cannot remember ever being lost and thinking, Oh, great, I’m encountering the world from a different perspective. What a wonderful growth opportunity! The first thought that occurs to me when I’m lost isn’t fit for the pulpit! One of my earliest childhood memories is of being lost in a grocery store. I must have been three years old. I became separated from my mother and brothers. I remember crying very loudly. In fact, I have a memory of being outside of myself, watching myself crying from a few feet away. I was afraid but I suspect there was more than fear in my body. It was my first conscious experience of separation from my mother without knowing where she was or how I could get back to her. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that she might be gone.
Then there was a family hike. I can’t quite remember which summer it was or which national park—it was either Yellowstone or Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia. My mother was nervous from the start, mainly due to the signs instructing us what to do in the event we encountered bears. My father, perpetually unconcerned, led us onward to a supposedly beautiful lake out in the wilderness where only the most experienced campers camped. We eventually found a small pond full of duckweed and decided that either the map was not drawn to scale, or we were lost. It turned out to be both.
But perhaps the most embarrassing experience of being lost was on my honeymoon in Italy. Steph and I were staying in a hotel in the town of Sarno about an hour’s drive east of Naples. We had spent the day exploring Pompeii and didn’t start heading back until after dark. Steph fell asleep as I drove. I soon stopped recognizing landmarks along the highway, and realized I had no idea where we were. I took a random exit. At the bottom of the ramp was a toll booth. I started speaking to the attendant in English, a reasonable thing to do since many Italians speak English. This Italian was not one of them. But instead of waking Stephany, who is relatively fluent in Italian, I panicked. I started speaking louder English to the attendant. This strategy was unsuccessful. It got worse from there. I won’t go into details, except to say it was not one of my finer moments. Steph eventually woke up. She had a long conversation with the attendant in Italian, which I suspect had very little to do with directions, and very much to do with me. We paid the toll and continued our journey. We knew from the attendant that we were heading in the right direction, though we still didn’t know how to get where we were going. As I remember it, we came upon Sarno by sheer luck. It was a long night.
All this is to say that even though the words of Thoreau, Chuang Tzu and Jesus resonate with me; even though I know being lost offers certain blessings, I don’t like the way it feels. Which is why I had originally not planned to read Thoreau’s famous words in praise of being lost, but rather a more cautionary tale from the American writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez entitled “Within Birds’ Hearing.” In this story the narrator gets lost hiking in the Mojave Desert. It’s grim. “By evening I was winded, irritated, dry hearted,” he explains after many days of wandering. “I would scrape out a place on the ground and fall asleep, too exhausted to eat. My clothing, thin and worn, began to disintegrate. I would awaken dreamless, my tongue swollen from thirst.” He doesn’t speak of the wonderful things he’s learning about himself. He says, “I was overwhelmed by my own foolishness …. I knew the depths of my own stupidity.” He may be having a spiritual experience, but it’s one of suffering. He may be learning about himself, but it’s a lesson of human folly and frailty. If there’s a blessing, it’s that he didn’t die. And this feels really important to me: I want to speak of the spiritual blessings of being lost, but I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s never wise to romanticize wilderness experiences. There is no way to be truly lost and entirely safe at the same time. Anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness—whether in Nature or in some metaphorical wilderness—the depths of depression or grief or poverty or war—knows it can be terrifying. Lost people don’t always return. The blessings of being lost may not be worth the cost.
Well, Mary Bopp was having none of this. We started working with the Lopez story on Tuesday and she said “you’re taking all the fun out of it.” Unlike me, Mary is drawn to being lost. She told me about the dissonance she feels when visiting a foreign city with friends who want to plan the day in great detail. Rather than following paths prescribed by the local tourism bureau, Mary prefers to wander where there is no trail, to get off the beaten path. She says she enjoys the experience of solo hiking on a trail she’s never been on before. She also told me about her favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who often wrote in an early twentieth-century, late Romantic style in which the music continually modulates from key to key, so that the listener keeps losing their sense of the tonal center. Just when the listener feels like they’re arriving somewhere, the next modulation takes them in a different direction. They get lost. Different keys feel differently, offer different colors, different qualities. A modulation brings the listener into a new musical landscape. Mary loves this! She says it feels like it can go on forever, that there’s something eternal to it. She gets lost in it.
Mary’s appreciation of being lost reminds me of the historian Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She blends memoir, cultural history, nature writing and philosophy into a prolonged and varied reflection on the many ways we can be lost—lost in thought, in love, in a good story, in a city, in nature; lost as one comes of age; lost in the sense of not knowing entirely who one’s ancestors are. Solnit writes: “I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map.” She writes in praise of “nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography.” She writes in praise of “moments when I say to myself as feet or car clear a crest or round a bend, I have never seen this place before.”
So let me pull back from my concern with being dangerously lost. Yes, it can happen. Yes, we can become so lost we may never return. But we also cannot limit our lives in fear and expect to grow spiritually. Solnit says “the word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…. I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” I commend to you the practice of disbanding your army. I commend to you the practice of going beyond what you know. And with all seriousness but tongue somewhere near cheek, I implore you to get lost.
I remember hiking with my boys when they were younger, taking them a few hundred yards off the trail, blindfolding them, spinning them around, taking the blindfolds off, then instructing them to find their way back to the trail. At first it was an exercise in frustration. I would have to give them clues. But eventually they learned to look for landmarks as we walked away from the trail. Find the landmark. Find the way back. Over time they learned to pay attention to their surroundings, to observe and remember details in the landscape.
What trail in your life might you intentionally wander away from blindfolded and spinning? What new neighborhood, town or city might you explore without a map? What new experience do you want—or need—to have? Or consider the life-paths that lay ahead of you. Might there be one that excites you but feels just out of reach or more unknown, more difficult, more risky? Is there a way to start down that path even though you’re not sure where it leads? Or might there be some stasis that has overtaken your life; you know you need to break out of it, but breaking out would mean leaving the familiar behind, being lost for a while. Perhaps now is the time to wander where there’s no trail.
The benefits of intentionally being lost may be as simple as learning a new place, finding a new route, meeting new people, acquiring new skills, or just experiencing the joy of a nice surprise. But they may be more complex: discovering new dimensions of you, finding reservoirs of creativity, strength and resilience you didn’t know were in you. And they may come on a more explicitly spiritual level. Mystics throughout the centuries have described their ecstatic experiences of the divine in the same way we might describe being lost—entering the unknown, the dark, the cloud; feeling ungrounded, unanchored, dislocated; soaring, flying, falling, vertigo. For some being lost is a profound spiritual experience. Solnit suggests that “in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.”
I’m suggesting we practice being lost. But I’m also mindful that we practice for a reason. Being lost is an inevitable human experience. I’m not referring to getting lost in the actual wilderness, though that is certainly a possibility. I’m referring to being lost in our lives: lost in suffering, in illness, in decline; lost when everything around us is changing; lost when we realize life isn’t unfolding as we hoped. It happens. We lose our confidence, our sense of purpose, our sense of direction. We can feel lost in our schooling, in our careers, in retirement. We can feel lost because we know what we have to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We lose those we love and become lost in grief. The greatest benefit that comes from practicing being lost is that when we become lost for reasons beyond our control, we have some knowledge of how to be and what to do. We know to trust ourselves more than the map which may not be drawn to scale. We know to look for landmarks. We know panicking doesn’t help, though it may be hard to avoid. We know it may be a time to disband our armies. We know openness matters. We know patience matters. We know breathing deeply matters. We know it may be dark and cloudy for a long time, but that we can live with not knowing for longer.
When we’re lost, our world gets larger. I didn’t tell you that when I was lost and crying in the grocery store at age 3, a stranger helped me find my mother. And I didn’t tell you that when our family was lost in the woods, and we really didn’t know which way to go, a young couple happened by and gave us directions back to our car. I won’t say they saved our lives, but their chance appearance definitely kept us from spending a night in the deep woods. And I didn’t tell you that in Barry Lopez’s story about being lost in the Mojave Desert, his narrator is ultimately saved, as he puts it, by “the unceasing kindness of animals.” “Not till we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” said Thoreau. Perhaps that is the greatest blessing of being lost: not always, but more often than not, there is someone there to help. Our world gets larger. The extent of our relations is literally infinite, but we forget this. Sometimes being lost is what helps us remember.
Amen and blessed be.
 Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1960) p. 118.
 Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 94.
 Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).
 Lopez, Barry, “Introduction: Within Birds’ Hearing,” Field Notes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).
 “A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2005. See: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/08/a-field-guide-to-getting-lost.