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Getting Lost

Rabbi Toba Spitzer


A few weeks ago, I read a wonderful op-ed in the Boston Globe by a writer named Tim Cockey.  He writes:                               

“Here’s what I hope to do on my upcoming trip out West: Get lost. And not just once, but over and over again.

“Why? Because being lost is highly underrated.

“Some years back, in the pre-GPS era, I got (unintentionally) lost during a drive through the Idaho panhandle. Holding unwarranted faith in my inner gyroscope, I found myself not where I thought I should be, but instead rolling to a halt amid ponderosa pines in a six-structure hamlet going by the name of Good Grief. One of the structures housed the so-called pizza shop, which appeared to be open for business but absent its proprietor. The adjacent structure housed, as I learned, the mayor of Good Grief, who proved to also be the proprietor of the unmanned pizza shop. A handwritten note on the door of the shop instructed those with a yearning for a slice to knock next door, thereby waking up the mayor from his afternoon snooze and transforming him — at least for a few minutes — into a pizza chef. I don’t have the space here to expound on the entertaining nature of Hizzoner. I’m going to ask that you trust me. Lousy pizza, but a spectacularly rich, unplanned visit.”

Cockey continues:

“Get lost! We usually hear that as a curt directive. What I’m proposing is that in our age of global positioning technologies we might want to recontextualize these words as an invitation to engage in the purposefully unpredictable pleasures of surprise. I live in New York City, a world-class destination for getting lost. In my time I have wandered off to Coney Island when I’d thought I was Queens-bound. I’ve taken the wrong left and the erroneous right fork and stumbled onto the Louis Armstrong House Museum. I’ve literally been Lost in Yonkers. I once entreated a fellow in the Bronx to turn me around and set me straight, explaining to him that I was lost, only to have him reply: ‘No such thing, my friend. You are temporarily where you didn’t expect yourself to be. That’s all.’”

I love this: we are never truly lost; we are simply temporarily where we didn’t expect ourselves to be.

I would guess that most of us here tonight fall somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes:  on one end, the person who never takes the chance of getting lost, in any realm of their life.  Those of us who only take the expected next step, hewing closely to the directions we’ve received; those of us who need everything, always, to feel under control, expected, unsurprising. 

The challenge with this orientation to life is that, of course, the unexpected does - and will - happen. Having no experience with orienteering, with needing to find a new way, those of us at this end of things might find ourselves truly lost, overwhelmed, when we end up somewhere we didn’t expect to be.

At the other end of the continuum is the person who wanders aimlessly in life with absolutely no signposts about where to go, or what to do next.  The challenge here is that such wandering can lead to never being able to find the path, never knowing how to get back on the road of one’s life in a way that promises any kind of forward motion.  At this end, we may indeed feel truly lost.

I think Cockey’s insights here are helpful, wherever we find ourselves on this continuum.  For those who need every step to be charted out, then the advice is, “Get lost!”  Try stepping out of the normal, the expected—whether the inner GPS you are slavishly following was implanted there by others, or is of your own invention.  Try ditching the pre-set directions, and set off to find new horizons.  Cockey writes:

“What we call being lost could as easily be reframed as the unexpected place of surprises. On a hike in Vermont last summer, I aimed for a mountain lake but crossed my wires and instead found a waterfall. Loved it. More recently, I took the “wrong” exit off the interstate and discovered the world’s only museum devoted to the history of gloves.”

The ‘unexpected place of surprises’ - this could also be a description of this day of Yom Kippur, this journey of teshuvah.  If we are on a journey of turning and returning, seeking the best path, then it stands to reason that we won’t always know what’s around the bend.  Part of what’s hard about making change is the fear that we won’t recognize ourselves once it happens.  If we can embrace the possibility of surprise, of the unexpected, it is much easier to let go of old habits that hold us back.  Maybe, over the next 24 hours, you can allow yourself to imagine new directions, new possibilities, in our life.  You don’t need to commit to an entirely new road, but even opening up to the possibility of getting lost might allow some delightful surprises to arise.

But what if we’re already feeling lost, not in the place we want to be, and confused about how to get out?  Then, I think, we can take to heart the wisdom of the man in the Bronx: you aren’t truly lost, you are temporarily where you didn’t expect yourself to be. 

This sage advice suggests that being lost is more a mental state than a material reality.  So many things can knock us off course: loss of a job; divorce; addiction; illness; infertility; the death of a loved one.  Any one of these events can make us feel lost indeed.  But once we have assimilated an unexpected reality, once we have stepped back and gotten some perspective, we can realize that we are temporarily somewhere we didn’t expect ourselves to be.  This, to me, is a hopeful stance; an awareness that, with the proper maps, with some help and re-orientation, I can get back on course.  I can become un-lost.  Heading in an unexpected direction, perhaps, with a ways to go before I reach where I’d like to be, but no longer feeling that I’ve lost my way.

If you’re feeling a bit on the lost end of the spectrum this Yom Kippur, then perhaps you can use this day of reflection to identify some course corrections.  What help do you need to get re-oriented?  What is one signpost, something not too distant, that might tell you that you’re on the right path?  And if you are, indeed, someplace where you didn’t expect yourself to be, how might that surprise help you think about a new destination, somewhere that perhaps you had never considered?

So whether we need to get lost, or to begin to find our way back, I hope we can all use this Yom Kippur as the beginning of a helpful journey.  We have the liturgy, the music, the silence, and most important, the presence of all these people also on the journey, as our map, our GPS, to help guide us on the way. 

Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Kol Nidre 5780

Sun, July 21 2024 15 Tammuz 5784