Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost



[T]ravellers …, when they have lost their way in a forest, ought not to wander from side to side, far less remain in one place, but proceed constantly towards the same side in as straight a line as possible, without changing their direction for slight reasons, although perhaps it might be chance alone which at first determined the selection; for in this way, if they do not exactly reach the point they desire, they will come at least in the end to some place that will probably be preferable to the middle of a forest.

~ René Descartes, Discourse on Method


Well, damn. Now you’ve actually gone and done it. You’re finally and utterly lost. 


That nature trail with the signs? You decided: too easy, too many people, no possibility of adventure. That washed-out logging road? You rejected it, and why? Again, because it was easy and (your word, mind you) ugly. For a good while, you could still hear the distant sound of voices, and at any moment you could have turned and walked back. Then you crossed that grassy firebreak, looking like nature’s own yellow-brick road. Beckoning you. But no. Or I think it was more like, “Hell, no.” 


And now you’re having doubts? For fuck’s sake. 


A few reminders. Call it a review of your secret way marks: the broken twigs and scuffed tree bark. Or better, the mental map that you followed to the outermost edge and now, it seems, beyond it.


First was the conviction, based on observation of men and women for whom you have the deepest respect, that it is possible in life to do something of importance, even if the measure of “importance” has to be entirely of your own devising. You remember this, right? The insight: that it’s not so much that your definition of importance may be of limited appeal to others. It’s more like: completely outside the compass of their experience and therefore incomprehensible to them. Even, from their perspective, just a little crazy. Exactly as features of their lives are surely (to be fair) difficult if not impossible for you yourself to comprehend. 


Second, that well-known proposition from the Bard of New England: taking the less-travelled one or the other branch of a road could make all the difference. Understanding, of course, that “knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” Or as Geertz once put it: “One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end … having lived only one.” Translation: remember Orpheus and don’t look back. You could lose, at the last second, the very prize for which you undertook your arduous journey and risked so much. 


Third, your suspicion that Descartes had it all wrong. His unexamined — perhaps even smug — confidence that no one could possibly want to be lost. That any place is “probably” better than the middle of a forest (read instead: uncertainty, lack of comfort, danger, but also, René, unexplored truth and unappreciated beauty). That the thing to do in life is to get out your ruler, draw a straight line, and then follow that path unerringly, eyes forward, disciplining yourself always not to deviate or wander. 


That may lead you out of the forest, sure. But when you get there, friend, where are you? Don’t forget this wisdom:  


You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine.

~ Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety


Look, you don’t have to style yourself a king in exile to get a death grip on the proposition that not all those who wander are lost. You can be an ordinary person, no rings of power or wizards or heroic lays required. But that does not mean that no courage is required. Remember those words and phrases you came across in a recent newspaper article: curiosity, interesting rebellion, moral courage, passionate weirdness.


Sure, you probably never aspired to be and to be thought of as passionately weird. But now that you’re wandering and puttering around in the middle of a wilderness, muttering some not very nice things about Cartesian rationalism, surrounded by an inconceivably old Great Forest that will outlive you and all your race, don’t lose your nerve. Go ahead and start doing what you journeyed there to do. Do something important, even if there is no one nearby to see you do it. 


*Note from the author: I hope this helps. Keep the faith.


2 thoughts on “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

  1. Jim, interesting. But look at the famous Frost poem you cited; you’ll see, in a careful reading, that the poem indicates a speaker who will brag in later years about having taken the less-travelled road, but that’s not true. The roads are worn about the same. One of Frost’s cynical little tricks. Folks too often misread that poem, making it into a sort of statement of nonconformity when it’s really about an old man’s story to make himself look better.

    1. Sarah, thanks so much for reading and for the comment. Yes, quite right. The traveler anticipates that in later years he will tell others that he took the less-travelled of the two branches, when in fact, as he confesses to us now, the roads were “largely” or “perhaps” indistinguishable. Isn’t it wonderful, this technology that allows for comment and reaction of this kind? As you imply, a careful reading saves this poem from becoming a bit of daily wisdom. Reveals it as more complex. Especially since, given the traveler’s admission that he will one day tells a falsehood about his choice, we find ourselves a little uncertain that what he’s telling us is reliable. In any case, what do you take to be the antecedent of “that” in the final line?

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