2018 June 27

Feeling lost used to be a rite of passage. Before GPS, anyone driving in a car, at one point or another, knew what it was like to be lost. That feeling of knowing where you want to be but not being able to find your way and get to where you want to go. Here, in this very moment—whether in a car or in life—something happens to us. Too often, we are so concerned about not getting lost that we rarely pause long enough to consider how feeling lost changes how we think when we are at our most vulnerable.

Time acts differently. There is an urgency to being lost that is absent, or at least hidden, when we don’t have a clear destination in mind. Perhaps it’s because in the course of everyday life, we don’t always have clear goals. When we want to get somewhere in particular, however, urgency emerges. Sometimes, it’s because we feel the need to get somewhere at a specific time.  But there’s also a distorted rhythm to being lost.  Time no longer cooperates.  It appears to go by faster and slower—taking us out of the normal rhythms that allow us to ignore time. When we are lost, we become highly sensitized to the passing of time, transporting us into a hyperawareness of how the need to get somewhere affects our body.

When we are lost, time is no longer something that we look at on our watches—it’s something that begins acting on us as our body tenses up, our pulse quickens, and our breathing become increasingly distressed.

In the midst of growing uncertainty, we look to time for guidance, but because we don’t exactly know where we are and how long it might take us to get where we feel like we need to be, time becomes meaningless as it doesn’t allow us to predict anything.

Everything demands our attention. When we feel like we know where we are, we know what we should pay attention to and what we don’t need to think about. Mindlessly driving to work is comforting because the journey is characterized by what we don’t have to notice. Guided by habits of routine means not having to pay attention to directions, the right turn, that curve, or that long stretch of highway. When guided by habit, our bodies and minds collaborate with our environment so we can become engrossed in our own thoughts—a favorite song, a rehearsing of what might happen later that day, or replaying a conversation from the previous night.  We are on autopilot. When lost, however, everything demands our attention. Everything has possible meaning. Every street name might be the path you are looking for. Every landmark might be a clue to finding where you want to be.

When everything around us has possible significance, we can’t help but feel overwhelmed. We don’t feel like we are moving forward as much as our surroundings are streaming at us. Because we can’t anticipate anything, signs come toward us—we don’t pass by them. Only when a street sign is upon us can we realize that was the very street we wanted to take.  Clues appear and disappear in such short notice that we can’t take a moment’s break. Our attention must remain fixated on what we are doing because our senses need to be heightened to account for every possibility. As our hands grip the steering wheel and our eyes hastily scan, disorientation means not being able to free our minds from preoccupying ourselves with everything that is around us

Self-doubt becomes magnified. When we have to pay attention to everything, while we are in the midst of our journey, we can’t help but question ourselves. “Was I supposed to have taken a left at that last street?” “Maybe the directions are wrong?” “Is this the path I’m really supposed to be taking?” “Should I turn around?” “Should I ask someone else for help?” “Where did everyone else go?”

When we don’t know where we are or where we are going, the voice in our head becomes our own navigational device that doesn’t as much give us directions as it makes us question every decision. And the longer we feel like we are lost, the more we begin to question ourselves as each decision becomes more and more important.  As every choice becomes magnified, we can’t help but believe there is only one right way to get there. And if there is only one right way to get there, then yes, every action and inaction is consequential.

At this point, lostness isn’t only about where we are going as much as it’s a charge against ourselves. “I’m terrible at directions.” “I can’t believe I can’t figure this out.” “I should have spent more time preparing for this journey.” “I have no idea what I’m doing.” As the voices of self-doubt become an unending monologue, we feel less and less connected to what is around us. Lostness is no longer a geographical description as much as a personal and scathing indictment. “I am lost.”

The voice we use to talk to ourselves isn’t supportive and encouraging. It’s nasty and unrelenting. It’s usually full of contempt and almost never self-forgiving. In the silence of our own thoughts, we treat ourselves in ways we would never treat others. Our self-voice never, ever apologizes.    

Perspective shrinks when we are lost. When threatened by not knowing where we are or where we are in relation to where we want to be, we become single minded. Feeling lost isn’t simply about getting where we want or need to be, it’s also a statement about our incapacities. “If I can’t even find my way, how am I going to do what I need to?” “Why are the simplest things so hard for me?” “Why does this always happen to me?” “I must really be losing it.” In the process, the world around us shrinks.  At the very moment when our surroundings are drowning our attention in constant stimuli, we lose our ability to see beyond our immediate circumstances.

We can no longer see ourselves and our journey for what it is. It represents so much more.

It—our journey, our need to find our way—becomes a preoccupation.  Nothing else matters. We push down faster on the pedal. We take more risks. We don’t fully stop at the stop sign. We turn away from others.  And our desire to find something real and concrete becomes our sole preoccupation at the very moment when our peripheral vision shrinks allowing us only to see what is immediately before us, distorting everything.

And then we arrive at our destination. We arrive but we are different. We are where we thought we needed to be but we are depleted and exhausted.  The first voice we hear startles us because it’s the first voice we’ve heard in a while that isn’t ours. The first voice we’ve heard that isn’t yelling.  We are there, but we are different. And then we spend the rest of the time camouflaging the fact that it—the journey—has taken too much from us for us to share without looking silly and embarrassed.

Being lost isn’t a description of a place; it’s an experience that shapes how we think about ourselves and our capacity to get where we want to be.

Being lost isn’t something we’re allowed to talk about. Being lost changes us but we can’t let anyone know this because it’s a state of mind that is seemingly temporary.  We admire people who always know where they are going. With GPS, we’re led to believe that being lost is out of style. Not something anyone has to worry about anymore. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

People are still getting lost, every day, it’s just we no longer want to acknowledge that being lost is part of being human and it often has nothing to do with a destination, but a change in how we think about ourselves in the midst of struggle. Isn’t it time to create spaces to talk not only about destinations, but also what it means to be lost? We don’t need others nearly as much when we’re at our destination, but we need each other most when we are lost and under the influence of self-doubt.



4 Responses leave one →
  1. June 28, 2018

    This is so awesomely written and so true! What genius to be able to render such a profound description of what goes on in our minds when lost. I get it!!!

  2. June 28, 2018

    Thank you Teri. This means so much coming from you.

  3. Norris Frederick permalink
    July 1, 2018

    Dr. White, of all your insightful posts, this may be the most profound and helpful yet, on being lost. You’ve described that ontological state so well: “When we are lost, time is no longer something that we look at on our watches—it’s something that begins acting on us as our body tenses up, our pulse quickens, and our breathing become increasingly distressed.”

    Your points about the comforting role of habit as we see familiar landmarks is enlightening, as well as pointing out to us the reality and value of being lost in a world in which we metaphorically think we always have GPS.


  4. July 2, 2018

    Thank you Norris!

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