Dare to Be Lost


Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved,” writes Soren Kierkegaard.

All during college and long after I graduated, I often felt lost—and after many decades I have come to realize this was a good thing.   Drop by drop, the sensation of being a stranger in a strange land—of being small and poor in the way of resources and surrounded by unknown forces– accumulated like water in an inner well.  Do you know the feeling of waking up in a new place?  There can be such a vivid feeling of being alive in body in a world that is also alive—and that feeling can come to sustain you.

Being lost can be an extraordinary gift because it reminds us of our embodiment.  It returns us to the basics of our life—that we are vulnerable and very dependent on others. It can open our eyes and our minds.  It can open a door in our heart and usher us through to a new kind of knowledge, a new way of knowing and relating to the world.

“Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries,” writes Theodore Roethke.  It turns out that feeling lost in college, like a fish out of water, and afterwards blundering around in New York City without a clue or a marketable skill was a blessing.  Very, very slowly, I came to appreciate values and qualities that are often overlooked in our culture, qualities like compassion and kindness and a capacity to feel joy when things go right for others.

The Buddhists call these qualities the “Paramitas” (from a word that means “perfection” or “completeness.”) The greatness of Christianity (to paraphrase Simone Weil) is to show us the use of being lost, vulnerable, suffering, that it can be a doorway.  The Beatitudes are a testament and a contemplation and guide to the way these experiences can lead us to living waters, to that well that gives meaning and life.

This week, a dear friend of mine took her daughter, another wonderful young friend, to start college.  My own daughter and I dropped by to give our friend a fuzzy blanket for studying and a journal. In addition to being a future engineer who may help save this wounded planet Sarah is a talented writer and a very sensitive being.  We left happy and proud of all the hard work that had taken her to Columbia University, and all that is to come.  A few days ago, I heard the terrible news that a girl in Sarah’s dorm jumped to her death before classes started.  The newspapers said she was afraid of disappointing her parents.

I don’t wish to exploit or minimize the private torment of that young person, but it strikes with new force that our culture is out of balance—emphasizing intellectual achievement over inner heart qualities like compassion and wisdom.  Sarah and her Mom are definitely not in this category—nor are the readers of Parabola and this blog.  But the time has definitely come to make a stand for another way of life, another way of knowing—a way that may start with valuing what many people judge to be useless.

For now, I will leave with this: In an upcoming issue, “Science and Spirt,” we are thinking of including a piece about what helps when science (in this case medicine) fails.

Here is an excerpt from a posthumously published book by the famous Dutch priest Henri J.M. Nouwen.  After nearly two decades of teaching at the Menninger Foundation, at the University of Notre Dame, Yale University, and Harvard University, he went to work with mentally challenged people at the L’Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, Canada.

Founded by Nouwen’s friend Jean Vanier in France in 1964,  L’Arche Daybreak now has over 140 communities around the world where men and women with intellectual disabilities live, work and learn with assistants who seek a different way of life.  In a world that usually sees people with intellectual disabilities as less than productive, useful, whole,  L’Arche celebrates their creativity, transparency and great capacity for joy.  These communities take the Beatitudes seriously.

Nouwen wrote about his relationship with Adam, a core member at L’Arche Daybreak with profound developmental disabilities, in a book titled Adam: God’s Beloved:

“My daily time with him had created a bond between us that was much deeper than I had originally realized.  Adam was the one who was helping me to become rooted not just in Daybreak but in my own self.  My closeness to him and to his body [Nouwen was charged with bathing and dressing Adam] was bringing me closer to myself and my own body.  It was as if Adam kept pulling me back to earth, to the ground of being, to the source of life.  My many words, spoken or written, always tempted me to go up into lofty ideas and perspectives without keeping in touch with the dailiness and beauty of ordinary life.  Adam didn’t allow this.  It was as if he said to me, ‘Not only do you have a body like I do, Henri, but you are your body.  Don’t let your words become separated from your flesh.  Your words must become and remain flesh.’”

The learned priest found the meaning of the Incarnation in Adam.  When I read his words—and so many other stories in Parabola—I remember there is another life to be found in the midst of this life.  I remember that failing can feel like dying but so does awakening.  I respectfully ask you to dare to be lost.  You may find a better way.

10 thoughts on “Dare to Be Lost

  1. Beautiful Tracy – two of my favorite quotes from Roethke and Kierkegaard. The “blank maps” picture made me think of the Enya song lyrics “each heart is a pilgrim.” I think this is how we become seekers, seekers that never find because we are looking, looking not for an end but the unfolding mystery. This makes me think of my favorite Wendell Berry poem entitled
    “The Real Work”

    It may be that when we no longer know what to do
    we have come to our real work,
    and that when we no longer know which way to go
    we have come to our real journey.
    The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
    The impeded stream is the one that sings.

    Perhaps when we seem to be lost is when we are right where we are supposed to be. Dwelling in mystery isn’t easy, it requires that being in the body – with all its ordinariness that you refer to above, along with the heart wide open to see and to know in ways only the heart can understand.

    1. Beautiful contribution to where I was try to go, Barb. I agree with you. I believe each heart is a pilgrim and I love the poem “The Real Work.” Thank you, Tracy

  2. As a side note, Simone referred to the greatness of Christianity, not the genius.

    Don’t get me wrong. I know the importance of “attitude” when lost and this attitude can serve a beneficial purpose for society.

    However, what must it be like to dare to be found? My gut feeling is that only a rare few are capable of it and its goals are strictly ones own since society will often frown on its results.

    “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it We must continually suspend the work of the imagination in filling the void within ourselves.”

    “In no matter what circumstances, if the imagination is stopped from pouring itself out, we have a void (the poor in spirit). In no matter what circumstances… imagination can fill the void. This is why the average human beings can become prisoners, slaves, prostitutes, and pass thru no matter what suffering without being purified.”

    “That is why we fly from the inner void, since God might steal into it. It is not the pursuit of pleasure and the aversion for effort which causes sin, but fear of God. We know that we cannot see him face to face without dying, and we do not want to die.”
    — From “Gravity and Grace”

    It is a scary thought since our lives are primarily lived by a condtioned personality. If this is dominant yet built on imagination it is obvious why it cannot tolerate being seen and allowing us to be found.

    I’m not suggesting anyone should take that path. I just have a great deal of respect for those who can. It just struck me that as hard as it is to dare to be lost it is far harder to dare to be found.

    It is far easier to learn to “avoid” then to be open to the “void.” Unfortunately resistance is normal for the human condition.

    1. Hi Nick, I will replace “genius” with “greatness.” Being found by God–the paradox is that this state of emptiness, abandonment, complete receptivity can take being lost in a worldly way.

  3. I like your comments Nick, and I agree with you that there are not so many of us, with some different way of being, and which is ultimately the blessing/curse choice in terms of how we look at it. People who are awake can look at the sleepers, the marioneetes and wonder – are they not the aberration and not I? All this separation, for the sake of fundamental human expression, for the cause of the oneness – this is a tough paradox to live sometimes!..Thank G-d, the only blessing I can claim is that I have discovered my truth, or perhaps it found me out. . . . and I belong to it. How did I get it? An earthquake followed by a tsunami – I wouldn’t recommend it!
    About daring to be found. I think the only place to be “found” is nowhere, the now here that makes it possible and it, for all intents and purpposes, is the same as “lost,” in terms of the mystery school of knowing where you come from, where you are, and where you will go. Now THAT is lost!

  4. Jacob Needleman wrote:

    Man, Gurdjieff taught, is an undeveloped creation. He is not really man, considered as a cosmically unique being whose intelligence and power of action mirror the energies of the source of life itself. On the contrary, man as we encounter him is an automaton. His thoughts, feelings, and deeds are little more than mechanical reactions to external and internal stimuli. He cannot do anything. In and around him, everything happens without the participation of his own authentic consciousness. But human beings are ignorant of this state of affairs because of the pervasive influence of culture and education, which engrave in them the illusion of autonomous conscious selves. In short, man is asleep. There is no authentic I am in his presence, but only an egoism which masquerades as the authentic self, and whose machinations poorly imitate the normal human functions of thought, feeling, and will.

    I relate Tracy’s “Daring to be Lost” in the deeper sense with the inner recognition that we are a machine with the potential to be human.

    If this is true, I can see why grace is both so necessary and difficult to receive and retain. The machine doesn’t want it and prefers its imagination even to the extent of replacing opening to the void and the potential for experiencing conscience with the quieting imagination of avoidance.

  5. Hi Nick, interesting comment about man being a machine. A feeling machine? A thinking machine? A consciousness machine? What is a human machine anyway? I prefer to leave people’s experiences to who they are as individuals – whether they consider themselves humans or machines (or don’t consider anything in particular). I consider myself a human, and I don’t think of myself as a separate entity from everything else. I’m pretty certain my life would be a lot less unpredictable and less mysterious if I were a machine. I admire and I wonder, and I’m constantly scratching my head, I don’t think those are machine-like qualities, at least not for my experience.

  6. Hi Barb. As I’ve come to understand it, the human machine is a creture of REACTION. Consciousness affords the ability for ACTION. Lacking consciusness, we don’t really know what it means to be capable of action. Recognition of being lost is ususally a sign of a faulty machine. But as Tracy indicates, it can lead to something meaningful.

    “The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?” – Thoreau, Walden

    If Thoreau is right, conscious or awakend man is not something we can understand as machines or creatures of reaction. Yet there are those called to awakening and some more than others. The recognition of being lost and void of objective “meaning” the heart is called to is just part of the process.

  7. Becoming lost can be a good thing, a needful thing. Because in doing so, we can develop a whole new language, and new images, like an artist, does when they are creating, be it a new symphony, a beautiful painting, a poem, a play, or a photograph that takes your breath away and leaves you speechless.

    I love that feeling of speechlessness, of emptiness, of being empty and ready to receive the next new thing. The secret I think is in understanding that each moment is the next new thing. It is a moment that is both empty and full of infinite potential, a newness that is born out of every moment. I ended a poem once with these words.

    “We are the poet and the poem out of which each moment arises.”

    There comes a time when we must embrace being lost, letting go of all images and words, so that our spirit opens up to the divine mystery.

    This setting aside of words and imagery and opening oneself to what St. Paul calls God as Spirit, letting that Spirit make itself (or herself or himself) felt within us, grow within us, to lead us.” We find this idea beautifully expressed in these two scriptures from the Gospel of John, and in the book of Romans.

    John 14:26-27 and Romans 8:26-27, tell us:

    “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” …

    “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

    I imagine that this is exactly as Jesus must have prayed to our Father in Heaven (Abba), with a radical and complete openness and trust that took him beyond all forms and images into a union and unity with the Holy Spirit that was praying with and through him.

    This is the same Holy Spirit, who prays with and through each one of us, when we take the time to be still, to be silent, to meditate and rest in the Divine and Ultimate Mystery of God as Spirit.

    “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

    “That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

    “God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”

    “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”

    Even in Christianity it is taught that to find our life in Christ, we must give up the life we know and who we think we are. In this sense there is also a letting go of the self.

    Matthew 10:39 (NRSV): “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” . . . Luke 9:23-24 (NRSV): “Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

    As a practicing Christian, I might say this in another way; simply, that it is Christ and the Holy Spirit who dwells within us all and that the Holy Spirit as a teacher and comforter transforms, transcends, reveals, redeems, even expands and diffuses, all sense of self.

    Ultimately, what we mean here is that the self, our deepest self, our soul, our spirit self, is so intimately interconnected with the Divine that it is the Divine who dwells within us and who we are in union and unity with; in union with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to place it in Trinitarian terms.

    I wish there was a way to go back and teach this to the girl in Sarah’s dorm before she jumped to her death, and perhaps her parents as well. What a terrible waste for everyone involved.

    Then there are things that happen beyond all our control, or desire to control, except for the way we may learn to accept them, to let go and accept what is and may be.

    I’m thinking now of my new great nephew (grand nephew) Austin, who is 36 days old today and struggling to embrace life fully as an NICU patient since birth. His struggle for life can only be faced with faith and an openness that something very good is at work in his life, in our lives, some blessing.

    Where I see this at work, is in how people are coming together in life, love, prayer, hope, thoughts, and actions to help him and his whole family, both immediate and extended.

    And how there is a very great value in this, a great lesson to be learned that gives birth to caring, compassion, and community that are indeed a blessing and mystery to behold as they unfold within the world, our world.

    It’s why we are here together in this life. Is it not?


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