The Practice of Getting Lost

I don’t like being lost. I get agitated when my GPS malfunctions and end up miles from where I hoped to be. Most of us like life when it is predictable and safe. We like to be in control. We don’t look for opportunities to get lost.

But sometimes that is precisely what happens. Due to circumstances beyond our control we find ourselves lost and vulnerable: A suspicious lump needs to be biopsied, our job is downsized, our marriage goes south, a trust is broken.

Just when we think we are in control we are confronted by the reality that we don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what is around the next bend literally or metaphorically. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book ‘An Altar in the World’, suggests that such uncomfortable, unsettled moments can hold gifts. She writes: “I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the familiar path”.

This is not to minimize or romanticize how frightening it can be when lost. Yet the author reminds us that some lessons can only be found when lost.

Several years ago my physician informed me I had prostate cancer. I remember the fear that welled up in me at the sound of that one word, cancer. I felt lost as I struggled to navigate the medical wilderness. What was the right treatment plan? Anyone who has had a difficult diagnosis knows what I’m talking about.

Being lost

It has been eight years since cancer became part of my story and fortunately annual tests show me to be cancer free. Yet I resonate with the story of Jacob in the Bible who wrestled with a stranger throughout the night. In the end Jacob survived and was blessed with a new name ‘Israel’ which means ‘he who perseveres’. Jacob, now Israel, received a new name and was also left with a limp, a reminder of how fragile life is.

I have been lost many times. So have you. My time in the wilderness called cancer has taken some things from me and also given me gifts I otherwise would not have. One gift is the memory of being held, comforted by a presence that I call God. I can’t measure or quantify this but I know this to be true. Another is the reminder that life is a gift to be savored, relished, lived as fully and joyfully as possible. Another is gratitude for friends, loved ones and strangers who graced my life in life-giving and often surprising ways.

I’m not sure I would have found or fully understood the depth of such gifts if I hadn’t gotten lost. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we each add ‘getting lost’ to our list of ‘spiritual practices’. She isn’t trying to minimize the discomfort that comes in being lost. Yet paradoxically she knows that some gifts are found precisely when we are lost.

The Gift of Robin Williams

We mourn the passing of Robin Williams at age 63. He was an extraordinary person who touched the lives of millions as a comedian and actor. Initial reports suggest that he took his own life. A spokesperson for the family say that he wrestled for much of his life with depression and addiction.

His comedic genius served as a backdrop to my generation and touched the life of my children’s generation through endearing performances such as the Genie in the Disney animated film, ‘Aladdin’.

Robin Williams Photo

As an actor he won an academy award for his role as a grieving, empathetic therapist in ‘Goodwill Hunting’. In the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ he portrayed a beloved teacher who drew from his own reservoir of pain and spoke to the deepest longings of his students.

Robin Williams portrayal of these two fragile characters rings true because we sense that he brought his own vulnerability to the role. His experience resonated with our own sense of vulnerability and struggle.

As a comedian he had us rolling on the floor in laughter, even as we sensed that his comedic gift came from a fragile place. This connection between darkness and laughter wasn’t unique to Williams. His death feels so personal because his authenticity as a human being touched us deeply.

Robin didn’t hide his struggles but put them out for all to see. My hope is that his example will encourage and challenge each of us to be honest about who we are. One truth I’ve learned in 30 plus years of being a pastor is that no one has their act completely together, certainly not me.

We all have our areas of light and shadow, hope and despair. This mixed bag is what it means to be human. That Robin’s despair ultimately took his life should not discourage us from being open about our own vulnerability and struggles as well as our hopes and dreams.

His example challenges us to respond to the seemingly polite question: ‘How are you today?’, with an honest answer: ‘I feel good, happy’. Or, ‘I feel alone/anxious/sad/hopeless/angry’. The truth is most of us feel a mix of emotions every day.

In choosing to be emotionally authentic with each other, we have a responsibility to listen and be compassionate and caring. To let each other know that we have each other’s back. This is what it means to be part of a healthy community.

This is a bittersweet time. We are full of grief at the passing of an immensely talented, flawed and courageous human being. And, we are full of gratitude for the joy and depth of humanity that Robin Williams brought to us all. May God’s comfort be with his family and all who grieve his passing. To the Creator’s love we return his expansive soul.