This I Believe

Joel - Bloomington, Minnesota
Entered on February 27, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50

The Joy of Being Lost

I believe there’s an irrefragable value in living a nomadic lifestyle, although it’s certainly not for everyone. I’m 36, single, and currently teaching English in Damascus, Syria: my fifth country in the last five years. On the first day of each class, I seldom reveal more than these basic details. But to most of my students, my life appears incomplete. “Joel, when are you going to get married?” they wonder, as if the prospect of a man without wife or family insults their well-intentioned sensibilities. “I don’t know,” I gently answer when what I really want to say is, “Whenever I discover a compelling reason for remaining in one place.”

If you’ve ever visited a country in which you don’t speak the native language, don’t know any of its people, and don’t know where you’re going, there’s always a specific moment of time when you feel totally lost—if only for a few hours. Some people find this temporary confusion terrifying but I’ve learned to not only embrace it but to seek it out, mainly for the hyper-awareness and self-confrontation that always accompanies it.

When I arrived in Damascus five months ago, my first task was finding my way to my employer, the American Language Center, with nothing more than a hand-drawn map of unlabeled streets and my useless 25-word Moroccan Arabic vocabulary. A hotel concierge offered to call me a taxi but I refused, knowing that once I reached the ALC, I would have an irrevocable reference point—a locus for my sun-centered universe—and the foreignness of Syria would sadly disappear.

The 20-minute walk consumed the better part of 90 minutes. I got lost, asked directions three different times, and was unable to find anyone who spoke a language I understood. But in getting lost, I was rewarded with the first captivating glimpses of my new home. I stared at a numinous, sand-colored mountain called Qasioun littered with homes and apartments rising like a staircase—a half-finished Tower of Babel—to the cloudless blue sky. I marveled at the well-preserved, 40-year-old American cars lining the streets, watched Shiite woman peering out at the world through their black burkas and felt acutely, joyfully alive. Time slowed. I lived a month’s worth of questions in those 90 minutes and filled my head with indelible memories.

Perhaps one day, I’ll discover a way to maintain this heightened awareness without changing environments. But until I do, I refuse to remain in one place. I’ve had more adventure in these past five years than I have in the previous thirty. I’ve seen some of the world’s most beautiful human-made treasures, shared some irreplaceably poignant moments with friends, and learned to appreciate the people walking in and out of my life. Most importantly, I’ve developed a respect for the complexity of the world and become less certain of my own truths. Now that I’ve seen a small glimpse of what’s out there and what’s possible, I want to live my whole life with the same intensity.