In 2009 Jan Souman tracked volunteers using GPS monitors as they attempted to walk in a straight line through the Sahara Desert and Germany’s Bienwald forest. When the sun wasn’t visible, none of them managed it: volunteers would reliably end up walking in circles. With no external cues to help them, people simply did not travel more than around 100 metres from their starting position, regardless of how long they walked for.
It turns out that getting lost is not an art, but a science. Children will take convoluted routes which track their whims, people in mental turmoil gravitate towards places of meaning or nostalgia, and dementia patients tend to walk in straight lines out from where they started. We get lost in predictable ways.
When you are lost, the world is suddenly different. Your relationship to what surrounds you is fractured and augmented. Your vulnerabilities feel more acute, and your weaknesses feel more exposed.
In early June, I sat on a train sobbing and blowing my nose on a paper train ticket to the complete disinterest of fellow train passengers. I had been travelling for 12 hours and was still in Lille – far away from the as-yet-unknown apartment I needed to find in Paris, and much further from Nice where I’d planned to end up that evening. I had also just been separated from my luggage and was suddenly feeling quite alone and quite in need of home. Feeling lost is transformative.
One of my recurring ponderings in life is to conjure up a map of a world which would mark out the location of every lost item in real time. I think about where the navy sweatshirt I lost a decade ago would be denoted, and about my suitcase having just made a brief appearance for around six weeks hovering around Germany until it reached the Flixbus office.
Being lost is relative. It’s a real and transformative state of being, but it’s a relational one. We get lost only when there is somewhere to be missing from.
In Philippians 3, Paul writes, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Paul isn’t saying here that gains and losses aren’t real. We each know the comforts and pains of gains and losses we ourselves will have experienced. Instead, Paul writes that these gains and losses are all relative to Christ.
Christ is the visible sun by which we find a straight path. Christ sees our comings and goings, feels our separation, knows that often we are circling not far from where we began.
We may find ourselves to be lost, but we are never lost from Christ.
Robert Frost wrote a poem called ‘The Road Not Taken’
and we read it at weddings and reference it in speeches to mean
“Remember to take the road less travelled by”
Except Frost’s point was not that one road was better than another
but that the only difference is that of our own given meaning
Jesus of Nazareth said to ‘Enter through the narrow gate’
and we read it in scripture and torment ourselves with worry
“Because small is the gate and only few find it”
Except Jesus’ point was not that the right gate will be elusive
but only that the choices we make are ours alone