When you’re wandering cobblestone streets in Europe, stopping at cafes and making unexpected discoveries, it’s fun to lose your way and wander off the well-trodden path. You’re on an adventure! When you’re out on a long run and don’t mind if you take a wrong turn or two, you know that the extra distance is good for you.
But here’s the thing: you’re not really lost in those situations. You’re exactly where you wanted to be, even if you didn’t know it before you took the detour. That’s why “getting lost” feels oddly welcoming.
When it comes to wandering in the wilderness of the soul, however, it’s a different situation. This is the wilderness where you feel truly lost. You lack direction, enthusiasm, or purpose—or maybe all three. You don’t know what to do, and every option you can see feels like two steps backwards.
Amenities are limited in this wilderness. You sprain your ankle on those picturesque cobblestones. Cafés serve overpriced, burnt coffee, and the servers are rude. All you want is to get back on the path, but it’s not so simple. The teacher appears when the student is ready, so they say, but you’re ready to drop out of class.
You curse the landscape, your traveling companions, and most of all yourself. You try to fight your way out, but any opponent you select is a straw man, any battle a proxy war that only ends up delaying your exit further.
No one chooses the wilderness; the wilderness chooses by its own logic. And once you’ve entered, your ability to determine the time and location of exit is beyond your control.
Let’s say you’ve recently arrived in this unpleasant no-mans-land. Perhaps this isn’t your first time here, so you try to get your bearings. You survey the landscape, recognizing familiar signs and features. With a shrug of your shoulders, you think, Well, I’ve done this before. I just need to lace up my boots and start hiking.
But each wilderness of the soul has some unique shape or challenge to it. You notice that the tools you used the last time have become rusty, or maybe even defective. The wilderness is mocking you, telling you that if a quick fix was available, you wouldn’t have encountered each other again.
As you ponder your options, you think, Where am I? And, How did I get here? And most of all, Where’s the off-ramp from this wilderness?
But that’s where you find yourself frustrated again. The off-ramp isn’t on the map! The very definition of a wilderness is a place where you find yourself wandering, most likely going off in the wrong direction multiple times. Your path out will be anything but direct.
Eventually you sink in and accept your fate. Damn. I guess I’m officially lost in the wilderness!
It’s at this point, or soon thereafter, that you finally learn something. First, you learn that you are not in control. The longer you fight this lesson, the longer you remain in one place.
It’s not that you have no autonomy whatsoever. You have skills, and you have life experience. You can draw on those times in your life where you had to do hard things. These memories and experiences won’t take you all the way, but they’ll help.
When you stop panicking, it gets easier. It’s hard to make wise decisions when you feel so desperate.
Speaking of decisions, somewhere in the wilderness there’s a decision you need to make. Before you can escape and get back on the path, you need to find your way to that decision point.
That choice you must make is not obvious or easy. Whatever the decision is, there are no two ways about it. Trying to have it all only leads to a muddy compromise that further delays you.
Once you navigate that point of no return, it gets easier still. You find a rest stop somewhere. You find an unexpected guide or companion. You see the beginnings of a trail.
Note: try not to get too excited at this point, because it might not be over yet. There’s always that “Darkest hour before dawn” thing to look out for.
Clues appear that lead you along the way, bread crumbs drop from the sky to give you sustenance. At first these feel like the bare minimum of rations, but somehow the crumbs lead you to a place of comfort. You begin to take joy in small pleasures again. The coffee becomes much better, and the servers even smile once in a while.
Finally you emerge from that wilderness, dusty and haggard, face set toward the sun and the path that leads you forward. Maybe you look back for a moment and feel grateful for the lessons you’ve learned. Maybe you shake off the dust and vow never to return.
Or maybe you just pause and say, “What the hell was that about?”
There’s no “5 ways to escape the wilderness” guide. If it were that simple, it wouldn’t be a true wilderness.
But understand this: acknowledging that you are in the wilderness is oddly empowering.
You probably know the quote well, having seen it on bumper stickers and Instagram captions the world over: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
Where does that come from? Oh, right, it comes from the human condition. The reality of life, love, and adventure. The choice to truly live, and to risk with no guarantee of return.
When you find yourself lost, release control but never give up hope. Always know that life is worth living no matter how hard things get.
And never doubt that there’s an off-ramp from the wilderness, even if that exit seems impossibly far away.
Chris Guillebeau is the New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness of Pursuit, The $100 Startup, and other books. During a lifetime of self-employment, he visited every country in the world (193 in total) before his 35th birthday. Every summer in Portland, Oregon he hosts the World Domination Summit, a gathering of creative, remarkable people. His new book, Born for This, will help you find the work you were meant to do. Connect with Chris on Twitter, on his blog, or at your choice of worldwide airline lounge.
Image courtesy of Leah Kelley.