Recently I felt lost and at sea. The funny thing is, I spend much of my time in this state, at least in some sense. When I travel, I rarely have more than a vague itinerary. In writing (a blog for example), structure and purpose come after hours of rambling mess. I’ve become happy in the space. Some of the best things I’ve done have come when moments of muddle crystallise to clarity.
As an example, last summer, with the intention to make connections within the tea industry, I returned to Taiwan. On my second evening back, while attempting to find a friend’s teahouse in the tangled web of alleys that spread west from Da’an park, I got lost.
A word about the environment on Ilha Formosa: it is hot! It feels pointless drying yourself after a cold shower because you’ll form a fresh layer of perspiration almost immediately. Not that this will help cool you. The humidity is such that, though your clothes cling to your back with it, sweat refuses to evaporate. The air is saturated. The atmosphere is close. Not the location for the proverbial wild-goose chase.
Feeling worn out and slightly dehydrated, I was about to call it and head home, but decided to step into a shop and see if they could locate me. It was a small space. Merchandise, much of it Japanese in origin – from the Meji era, I found out later – was arranged in the cluttered orderliness you only find in market bazaars and antique shops. A tea table took up half the room. My kind of place. Although the owner, Andy, solved the mystery of my location in minutes, hours – and several pots of tea – later I was still there. During this time, my new friend (well connected as a trader of luxury commodities) introduced me to invaluable contacts in the tea market, both in Taiwan and the mainland. A chance encounter, one that emerged when I least expected it, but which solved not only the issue at hand, but more broadly the overarching reason for my trip.
This is not an isolated event. I can think of countless examples where surrender to a less than ideal situation (often more urgent than the above) led to a remarkable breakthrough. In helpless moments, resources – coming often from angles we can’t expect – arrive.
Despite that awareness, my latest episode of maplessness unsettled me. Why though?
Well, I guess I usually have some certainty, a guiding principle which underpins my choices. But recently I’ve reevaluated my focus. Goals I considered constant, I called into question. This was less a pivot than a wrecking-ball rebuild.
At the best of times, uncertainty tests us, but when your whole raison d’être shifts, it can be devastating. In the depths of an existential crisis, you can feel alone at sea and it takes work to reorientate.
However, now the dust has settled – as it always does – and though the restructuring was turbulent, I feel better than I did before. From the shreds of a discarded map, you can draw up a new one, sketching in the peaks and pitfalls illuminated by your experience-wrought wisdom. Unrestricted potential, the freedom to choose, can be overwhelming. You can feel vulnerable and naked, but there is so much power there.
“We are built to be sharpest when in danger, but protected lives have distanced us from our natural abilities to channel our energies. Instead of running from our emotions or being swept away by their internal gusts, we should learn to sit with them, become at peace with their unique flavors, and ultimately discover deep pools of inspiration. I have found that this is a natural process. Once we build our tolerance for turbulence and are no longer upended by the swells of our emotional life, we can ride them and even pick up speed with their slopes.” (p.211)
Next time I loose my stomach on a hump in the road, I’ll endeavour to remember that getting lost is one of the best things that can happen to us. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but it is. A voyage in hostile waters can show us what we’re made of and, out in the wilderness, you shed what is non-essential: it calls on you to bring forth a truer vision of yourself.