One of the most fear-inducing conditions for me is a sense of being lost. As a young child, I remember being separated from my mother in a shopping mall and the sweeping panic that overtook my body. To this day, I can still feel the rush of adrenaline and the terrified narrator in my head telling me that my survival was at risk. Now, here I am thirty years later, and although that lost feeling is a bit less dramatic and visceral, I find it strangely familiar. To my knowledge, we all experience periods of time in our lives when we feel like we are on shaky ground; we are not quite sure where we are headed and it is an accomplishment to simply endure each day. What is it about that lack of clarity that is so disconcerting, and how do we recognize when we are truly “found”, or at least on the right path?
The first time I recall facing the lack of a clear direction was upon graduating college. Up until that moment, there was always an expected and obvious subsequent move or goal to meet: passing exams, moving onto the next grade, until finally it was time to choose a profession. Naturally, in absence of any real certainty of my intended career path, I chose one that felt socially acceptable and equipped to provide me with ensuing options: consulting. Nonetheless, looking back, I was more lost than ever in that position. I was working an unsustainable number of hours each week and encumbering myself with an unhealthy level of stress just to prove that I was on the correct and most direct road to professional success.
Fast forward another fourteen years, and to some degree, I still feel as if I am at a juncture. As wise men often say, timing is everything. As if by divine intervention, I recently picked up Paulo Coelho’s famous book off my bookshelf, The Alchemist, to re-read for the first time in a decade. The entire premise of the story is the fulfillment of one’s “Personal Legend” or purpose. The central message is that the Universe achieves harmony if all, natural things continuously undergo a cycle of pursuing new goals and evolving into a higher being, in the process of achieving their Personal Legend. The notion being that the individualistic pursuit of a Personal Legend exists as life’s dominant spiritual demand. What stands out for me is how the protagonist, a boy named Santiago, is tested in his faith as he is lost in the desert in search of his treasure. He knows he has a goal for his life (represented by a dream of a relatively ambiguous treasure), but he also has to learn to be comfortable in not knowing how and when he will find it – and the possibility that he will die trying. Symbolically, Santiago didn’t use a map, just the North Star, which served as his compass. He was guided by a single star in a direction that he trusted was the right one based upon listening to the signs that were constantly reinforcing his path forward.
On my own journey through the darkness that has me questioning whether I am moving in the direction of fulfillment, I am learning two important lessons. One is summarized best in a line by the author Sue Monk Kidd: “To know exactly where you’re headed may be the best way to go astray. Not all who loiter are lost.” The boy in The Alchemist technically “loitered” for years. Setback after setback, his option was either to return to where he came from, or to stay put and re-define himself. Only much later is it obvious that all the times he idled in place feeling lost were really the periods when he learned and evolved the most, appropriately preparing him for his next act.
The other message, or reminder, for me is one of trust. We are constantly guided by a North Star (literally or figuratively) that ultimately leads to an oasis. Even on cloudy nights when it is impossible to see, it remains; the shining twinkle is just waiting for the perfect timing to reveal itself again. First published in 1806, the popular English lullaby, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, encapsulates the message beautifully. If only as children we had learned and integrated more than the first stanza…
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high, Like a diamond in the sky.
When the blazing sun is gone, When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light, Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.
Then the trav’ller in the dark, Thanks you for your tiny spark,
He could not see which way to go, If you did not twinkle so.
In the dark blue sky you keep, And often thro’ my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye, Till the sun is in the sky.
‘Tis your bright and tiny spark, Lights the trav’ller in the dark,
Tho’ I know not what you are, Twinkle, twinkle, little star.