My last post was about getting lost in a somewhat familiar place. Afterwards, I found myself looking for more on the topic of getting lost, which led me to two fantastic essays by Rebecca Solnit — one, “Open Door,” in her collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and the other, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” in the April 24, 2014 New Yorker.
In “Open Door,” which references the practice of leaving the door open for Elijah to wander in on Passover, Solnit dives into a discourse on the symbolic resonance of leaving the door open for the unknown. She shares a question from the ancient philosopher, Meno: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
In response to Meno’s question, Solnit suggests that the “thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find and finding it is a matter of getting lost.” Getting lost, however, is not as easy as it perhaps once was – at least in the physical sense, with apps like “Around Me” and google maps at the tip of our finger. But if Solnit is right that “never to get lost is not to live,” we may need to make a point to do it from time to time.
Of course other writers have been interested in this question, too – in Walden, Thoreau wrote, “Not till we are lost, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves.” Virginia Woolf also had wisdom to share on the topic in her famous essay, “Street Haunting,” where she argues, according to Solnit, that “getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.”
Ultimately, says Solnit, “getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” She connects this kind of meandering discovery as necessary for creation and deeper understanding of both the world and the self. One of the best Emily Dickinson poems, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark,” takes up this very theme: that in the darkness, true sight can be found. In the dark, “something in the sight/ Adjusts itself to Moonlight,” Dickinson writes.
Given that we are unlikely to find ourselves physically lost today unless we plan for it, if we want to find out about the things we know nothing about, we are probably wise to take up the practice of regularly walking outdoors without a phone in our hand or back pocket, and risk getting a little bit lost. Probably easier, and possibly less time consuming, is to remember to leave space in our every day lives for this kind of unscripted, unanticipated learning.
For more on Solnit’s work (and others), check out Maria Popova’s fabulous Brain Pickings.