I believe in the importance of getting lost. Once, when living in Japan, I climbed aboard a bus I thought would take me home but instead found myself winding down street after street of unfamiliar buildings. I felt something queasy and fearful awaken inside me and longed to ask someone where I was. Unfortunately, I had only lived in my town for two weeks and my Japanese was terrible. To compound matters, I did not even have my address written down nor did I have the phone number of the school where I was teaching. As the bus lumbered deeper into the city, I felt the fear inside me expand but alongside it was a growing elation of absolute freedom. I knew that I could dissolve into the landscape, become a fragmented part of that world – or any world – if I only maintained my courage to dive into the unknown.
As I frantically scanned the passing streets for a familiar sign, I saw my face reflected, shining back at me from the glass, a stranger. I saw that truths that defined me were completely artificial, that the notion of self had been constructed for me, not by me. Everything I clung to that identified me was false, erected to create a sense of security that cannot exist. To be lost is to rely solely on the self: the mind, the senses, the ability to reinvent the world by reorienting space and place.
My memory of those hours on a crowded bus in Niigata is pungent and fresh; just thinking about it makes my skin tingle. Being utterly lost in an alien land, I almost did not exist. I was invisible as air, unbound by all that had previously defined me. I was alone and surprisingly free. I knew I could go anywhere for I was an explorer, a pioneer, a ghostly force drifting in the floating world.
Eventually, I did make it home that day. Other riders came and went, but I remained constant and watched the world unfold outside my window. Finally, I saw a corner I recognized, a store where I had bought tea. The bus had come full circle in its route and I was close to home, on terra firma once again. I cannot say I was not relieved but part of me was saddened too because I was returned to earth, from the unknown to the known.
Getting lost is powerful and creates a sense of liberation and alienation few other experiences provide. In our ever shrinking world of GPS, interactive navigational systems and On Star services, I fear this magic will be lost forever for most. It seems people today crave the allusion of security that orientation suggests. There is a certain feeling of safety and power in stating, “I am here, at the intersection of X and Y.” Yet, I believe the real power is in stating, “I am lost but I know I will find my way.” These are words uttered only by those courageous enough to throw away the map.
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