Aleteia

The great benefits of feeling lost

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Want to grow and mature? Let yourself get a little lost more often.

Sometimes, I get lost on purpose. On a run, I’ll turn down a random street because I want to see what the houses are like in that intriguing neighborhood, or maybe there’s a hidden park tucked away around the corner, or a view of the river I’ve never seen. In this way, I’ve encountered places I cannot find again – delicate urban fountains of copper crusted in green by decades in the sun, dappled creeks with silvery sunfish darting in and out of the shadows cast by the thirsty cottonwood trees on the banks, a grass-covered ancient burial mound of the pre-Columbian civilization that lived on the banks of the Mississippi River a thousand years ago. These are one-time experiences that come to me unbidden. All I have to do is wander. 

I remember when I accepted my first assignment to pastor a church. I’d recently graduated from seminary and a small group of people asked me to come to Cape Cod to help them start a new Anglican parish. It was a leap of faith to accept the position, and to tell the truth, I was more lost than I anticipated. I had no idea how to build a church. Luckily, I didn’t know everything I didn’t know, so I happily agreed to get lost in the immense challenge of serving a Christian community from the first moments of its birth.

My willingness to get lost in different ways over the years has paid dividends. Not only did I learn a tremendous amount from my parishioners and mature as a pastor, I came to think of those parishioners as my family, and together our experimental community prospered. Because I had no idea what I was doing, I had no preconceptions about how exactly one goes about making a church thrive, so we formed an intentional community and tried all sorts of things. If I had arrived there with a map already drawn of exactly where I thought we should go and what I would or wouldn’t try, the whole experience would have been far less fruitful. 

Likewise, I could never plan to discover the forgotten and hidden parts of the city in which I live, because I had no idea they existed. The willingness to get lost is the only way.

Feeling lost isn’t always so much fun. Literally speaking, nothing is worse than being in a car – lost – white-knuckling the steering wheel while backseat drivers shout when to turn and complain about where you’ve gone wrong. Metaphorically, being lost as a state of mind is stressful. It’s that uncomfortable sense of not knowing what to do next, not seeing a productive path forward, feeling unsure of where life is going.

It happens to all of us at some point or another — trapped in an unfulfilling career but not sure what the better path might be, knowing there’s a specific vocation for you but unable to locate it, searching for love that seems impossible to find, standing at the precipice of a major life decision but unable to see the way forward. When the next step is unsure; we lose balance. It becomes a major source of stress and dissatisfaction.

The sense of being lost can also be an opportunity for growth.

It’s all in how we react to being lost. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to a young poet who was lost about what to write and what to do, writes, “Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language … Live the questions now. Perhaps then you will, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Patience during times of feeling lost, according to Rilke, is the key to eventually discovering new and amazing things. Being open to the experience is vital. Openness doesn’t make the experience any easier – even though I fondly remember working with that brand new church I also remember intense moments of stress and frustration – but if we are patient and open-minded, the experience of being lost eventually leads us to transformation. By definition, we don’t know what we can become until we become it, so if we’re never willing to take a risk, we’ll never experience any personal growth. How else can we expand our horizons unless we’re willing to go past our usual boundaries into unknown territory?

It’s a balancing act. I’m not saying to be reckless, but that shouldn’t keep us from being adventurous. And, of course, feeling lost is often a condition that life forces upon us against our will. What really matters is how we rise to the challenge.

When we look back on our lives, we can see how the unexpected events, even the very difficult times, the times we were anxious and worried, unsure of our future, those were the catalysts for periods of tremendous growth. So, I say, every once in a while turn right where you usually turn left. Open a new door. Go on and get lost.

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