I inherited a disability from my father. It wasn’t evident at birth. Instead, this quirk was revealed only as I matured. My affliction is subtle, allowing me to safely fly under the radar in most situations. I’ve developed a number of coping mechanisms to help me masquerade as a competent adult who knows her place in time and space. But when the connections in my brain were forming, a hiccup prevented the development of a sense of direction. Whenever I step outside of my familiar territory, I am robbed of any innate sense of where I am in the world.
My issue first came into focus when I got my driver’s license. Even after spending most of my childhood in my small town, any intuition I thought I had on to how to get from point A to point B proved untrustworthy. Street names held little meaning for me because I lacked understanding of the larger grid. Landmarks were no help. Familiar buildings failed to guide me in a world I’d known all my life, where every block held a memory. I had lots of details but no spatial memory needed to tie them together in my mind. To further complicate my situation, my rural community required a drive of approximately 45 minutes in order to reach civilization. In the new modern world, my survival strategies would be deemed primitive. All I had to rely on was a paper map and the kindness of strangers. Lacking technology or skills, that’s all I had.
When I consider all the times I’ve been lost while driving, it’s difficult to even pull up specific examples. It’s been such a common occurrence that my memories are comprised mostly by the emotions that surface. The realization builds slowly. I notice something that seems out of place, and I’m unsettled. A roadside sign confirms that I’m not going in the direction I intended. My heart speeds up as the car slows down. Shame paints my cheeks pink and frustration fills my eyes with tears. The bully in my brain begins his taunting. Desperation and fear duke it out. Finally, I surrender and throw myself on the mercy of some random gas store attendant (who may or may not give good advice.)
I moved to Chicago after college, and was quickly overwhelmed by the traffic and its unfamiliar layout. It used to make me crazy when well-meaning friends would tell me that the foundation of their directional sense was the simple knowledge that Lake Michigan is always to the east. (How could I use the lake as my guide when I couldn’t see it past all the big buildings?!?)
Handwritten, step-by-step directions approved by my friends were my security blankets. I didn’t leave home without them. They told me how to get to the grocery store, how to get to Target, and how to get to each job interview. (Not arrogant enough to assume I could do an on-the-spot mental reversal of the steps, I also made corresponding “how to get home” lists.)
Eventually, I caught on. Learned some street names and the directions they ran. Thankfully, the major city streets went for miles and miles, providing me with assurance that if I could simply get on Halsted and go north, I’d eventually find an intersection that I recognized. And I have to confess that the lake did eventually become a helpful landmark. I consider my years in Chicago foundational in helping me learn the meanings of the words north, south, east, and west. They’re still not hard-wired in my system, but at least we’ve been introduced.
Knowing my limitations has caused me to work with them and inspired me to incorporate some helpful practices. I build extra travel time into my plans whenever going somewhere new. Carpooling with friends often provides me with a wiser navigator or at least someone with whom to share the adventure. Google Maps is my new guardian angel who lives in my cell phone. Above all, I find comfort in the knowledge that I have direct access to the One who sees me at all times, and is able to guide me home.
I came across a quote yesterday in a book that struck a chord with me. It put into words what I have felt in my own experience and what I see around me in those that feel lost in their own lives. Ann Patchett wrote: “My mother used to say that the more lost you are, the later it got, and the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction.”
I know what it feels like to be lost and yet to keep going, not wanting to admit defeat. Both on the road and in life, I’m well acquainted with the internal demons that prevent progress. Pride makes me act as if I know what I’m doing. Fear shuts my mouth to keep me from asking for help. Shame ties up and isolates me when I’m lonely and hurting. The only solution I’ve found is to face them head-on. Admitting my weakness brings relief and freedom. Surrender is the first step towards being reoriented. Pretending is exhausting, so I try to live honestly.
If I am ever asked to share what I’ve learned at a support group for the directionally challenged, my advice might sound something like this:
When you’re lost, what you need most is someone you can trust. Something fixed, and certain, to guide you. Clear boundaries. Wisdom from someone who possesses a better perspective on where you are and where you want to go, who can see the bigger picture. Someone who has your good at heart and won’t mess with you for his own amusement. When you’re frequently lost, it’s worth considering whether your trust has been misplaced. It might be time to find a more trustworthy guide.
Choose unchanging landmarks. Getting your bearings involves returning to basic truths you can count on and come back to when nothing else makes sense. On the road, these may mean fixed points like rivers and buildings. In life, it’s worth investigating the claims of the One who called Himself “The Way, The Truth, and The Life.” (John 14:6) Figure out what you really believe. It’s worth the effort to find a reliable compass.
Finding the way is usually a gradual process. Step one: admit defeat and surrender to the fact that the route you chose isn’t going to get you where you want to go. Step two: choose to listen with an open mind. Step three: change direction, staying alert for the next indication that you’re heading the right way. (Warning: this process requires the following: humility, willingness to repeat each step as necessary, and a sense of humor that permits you to laugh at yourself.) Step four: celebrate with relief and gratitude when you arrive safely at your destination. Give credit where credit is due, and don’t get cocky. Every new leg of the journey will be unfamiliar so don’t be fooled into thinking you can make it on your own.
Pay attention. Read the signs and obey them to keep from running into dead ends or going in circles. Lots of people roll through life following the person in front of them, getting sidetracked and never arriving at their intended destination. Not all roads lead home. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Notice your surroundings, and make intentional choices. If they don’t get you where you want to go, make a note and choose differently next time.
My disability keeps me humble. My good friends know not to trust my intuition on the road. (If I say to go left, you’d be wise to turn right!) But as I navigate through this confusing world, I am carefully kept and gently guided. My internal GPS may have some bugs, but I venture out in dependence and trust, thankful for the One who journeys with me.
* From Ann Patchett’s collection of essays: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage