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Self-Knowledge • Fulfilment

Why Everyone Needs to Feel ‘Lost’ for a While

It is extremely understandable if we want the answer now, ideally right now. Or in the next couple of hours at least. The answer to what we should be doing, who we should be with, how we should settle the argument or where and how we should live. We have – goodness knows – been waiting long enough and our patience is at an end.

Painting by Georgia O'Keeffe of a mountainous landscape in Black Mesa, New Mexico.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, 1930

The mind is an obliging organ. It will – when set a task and under the pressure of an imperative – do its very best to deliver. It will stay up all night if necessary. It will strain every sinew, it will take copious notes and deliver a plethora of documents. It will pace the room and concentrate so much it will settle our expression into an eerie glare. It will shut itself off from every competing duty and respond curtly to any requests to come and have dinner or see the funny side of things.

Such efforts may be admirable and on occasion hugely productive too. But as much as we can respect this kind of torque-driven, high intensity pursuit of answers, we need also to give some space to the opposite. We need, in spite or because of the intensity of our hope for results, to allow ourselves moments of leeway to get very lost, not to know for a long time, to make a substantial mess of things and to discover in far more detail than we would wish that we have no clue as yet. To have any chance of one day reaching something substantial, we may need first to give up all hope that we will ever in fact do so. 

We need to budget accordingly. We would like to get the book done by Christmas. It might well be four years from now. We might like to understand what job we should do by July. We may still be flailing in the lowlands next March. This is both lamentable and – looked at with sympathy – entirely necessary too. 

Our minds need lengthy cycles of sleep and awakening, rest and motion. They need to learn from so-called distracted periods in which, below the surface, critical work will nevertheless be taking place. These minds need to stop attempting to control the future and allow serendipity into their routines. Maybe they don’t know what this album or book could bring them but they can pick it up anyway. Maybe they don’t know in advance what such a journey could teach them, but it might be worth going on all the same. They can’t entirely predict what their friends might say over dinner, but they might learn something important if they accepted the invitation nevertheless.

We need to be shaken from entrenched patterns of thought by new horizons; by original scents and vistas, by unanticipated ways of thinking. We never knew that this particular room, with this view of the Andes or the hills of the Extremadura existed, and they may help to birth other, more inward discoveries. 

If we are too afraid to allow novelty to enter, then we will never produce any thing other than what we already know. We need to get a bit less sanguine about what we call ‘wasted time’. It may take us most of our life to understand love – or to appreciate what we are really trying to do with our work. These are complex matters and our minds are erratic and entangled organs. This isn’t ‘wasted’ time so much as the time it just takes. We’re operating with an unhelpful idea of achievement. We’re forgetting the primordial role of false starts and rough drafts in the eventual attainment of anything good or true.

It’s a painful thought given how unpleasant it is to be lost – but maybe all this, the panic, the delay, the waiting, the weeks of not knowing, all this strangely belonged to finding our way. It was, as much as logic and reason, part of getting to our destination.

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