Even the strongest soul can become overwhelmed with a sense of discontent and a lack of direction. Not all who wander are lost… but maybe some are.
All that glitters is not gold. These are the immortal words of Shakespeare that were adapted by Professor JRR Tolkien in the poem of the same name. Essentially the point of this statement is that there are other things that catch the eye and appear to be of great substance aren’t necessarily of value. Another take on the statement is that there are things that are valuable beyond the traditional definitions of wealth. Either way, what we have in this statement is a ploy of misdirection – we know gold is always valuable and always glittering, but not everything that pikes your interest is actually valuable.
Tolkien then goes on with a similar line – Not all who wander are lost. A famous slogan that almost every travel and tourism agency in the world has adapted and used in one form or another, Tolkien is similarly suggesting that although we usually associate wandering with a lack of direction, not everyone who is wandering is doing so without an aim or a purpose. It’s a true enough statement.
And yet I think we have come to love this statement so much that we fail to acknowledge a truth that is besetting many of us.
It’s that not all who wander are lost… but maybe some are.
Wandering on purpose
There are definitely many of us who have the appearance of wandering through life who most definitely are not doing so without purpose. I think of someone like Mother Teresa who would’ve appeared to many to be a wanderer, and yet every step she took was marked with purpose of addressing what she described as the world’s greatest poverty – loneliness. I can also think of many of my own friends who have jetsetted off to hundreds of destinations for the purpose of humanitarian aid or mission work. Their destination may not necessarily be consistent, but by their intentionality and conviction we can all very much see that they aren’t lost whatsoever.
I think wandering is not necessarily tied into world travel either. Some people appear to be wandering in their career, and yet if you follow their job choices you’ll note a pattern of similarly intentional behaviour, building connections or organisations with a particular goal in mind. Some people seem to float between social groups on top of their main base of friends or fellowship, and they do so with the intent of building leaders and restoring relationships wherever they find themselves. For some people again it’s a literal thing of wandering on weekends with no particular destination in mind, but with very clear goals for leisure, rest, or building the lives of others.
So for those who would say of themselves that their wandering has always been on purpose, I would say that I agree with you that this is very much a valid case.
And yet the more people I talk to, it’s apparent that for everyone, wandering is not always so purposeful or helpful.
Where angels lose their way
For many people, wandering is actually carried out for the opposite reason of the reasons above. For many, wandering really is a response to a feeling that nothing is changing, of discontent, that there is something missing and I still can’t find it. I remember reading a blog by Kellie Donnelly a few years ago (great read, click here) where she discussed the feelings of returning home after travelling so many places and feeling like everything home still feels exactly the same, and that that is the reason to run away again. Many other authors in the vain of “the problem with travel that no one ever talks about” write extensively about this feeling of discontent, and are even so candid as to reveal one of the most disheartening things about their years of physical wandering. I’ve also known many people who have been abroad for years and who have returned with the same sentiment.
It’s that there was the promise that by seeing new things that you would eventually find yourself, and yet even years on, you still have no idea who you are.
Hey, this certainly isn’t everyone’s experience. I remember a few years ago after a very stressful and destructive time in my own life that I found some relief in travelling for a while, and it’s certainly a great experience. I wrote a lot more about that in 2014: The Year I Didn’t Think I’d Survive. Partaking in other cultures, being places you’ve never experienced, discovering dimensions of yourself you may not have seen if you hadn’t made a move, it’s all great stuff. However, I think most of my healing and clarity didn’t happen until I returned home. Is there a reason it couldn’t have happened overseas? Not at all. Many people I know have had life changing experiences overseas. It’s a good thing.
But I think the real point is that wherever you find yourself, there you are. And no matter where you go, whether you move physically or remain in the same locales, whether you keep the same career or move to another course of life entirely, you will always be with you.
It might be a different location, but it’s the same me.
When the issues don’t go away
I think when our wandering is in response to a sense of aimless purposelessness, the real term we could be using for it is “running away”. I know that might be a bit bold to say, but really, “wandering” could just be the term we’re given to our vices when faced with difficult thoughts. Some people wander through alcoholism, through heavy parties, through extreme experiences. Some wander through constant physical relocation. Some wander by staying home and spending their whole lives in a video game or a book. We all have different ways of processing things.
But unless we find a way to process things that actually helps us either discover our calling and purpose in life, or rediscover what’s been lost, we’re really just spinning our wheels. Like Simba in the Lion King, we’re out in the desert with our buddies doing things that may even be really good things, when we’ve left behind the calling that is waiting for us to either find it or return to it.
One of the most terrible feelings in all of life is the feeling that you’re not going anywhere. The feeling that you’re not really doing anything of consequence. The sense that you’re just not enough. The traveler and the hermit, the CEO and the janitor, the richest and the poorest, the greatest and the smallest – we all have the same innate desire within:
I want to matter.
What happened to you?
To quote some Tolkien again, I think one of the greatest pictures of this sort of frustration is in the tale of Aragorn and Arwen from Lord of the Rings, when Aragorn, frustrated in his destiny, confides in the one he loves: My path is hidden from me. Her response is that it’s not hidden, but it has been plainly laid at his feet.
You know, in our lives, our purpose and calling are usually staring us straight in the face. Some of us have had great dreams or people give us words of prophecy that have resonated so strongly within us that we will never forget what has been said. Others have things in life that have been so deeply satisfying to your heart that you’ve said, “This is what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life”. There are people in all of our lives who are constantly speaking into us and reminding us of who we really are. Others recognize it so strongly, even when we say we don’t recognize it ourselves.
When you lose your keys, what’s the first thing that people ask you? Where did you last have them?
In the same way, perhaps we would be better off to do the same with our sense of calling and destiny.
Where were you last when you had it? What was it that happened that tarnished your destiny? How did your heart become so broken? Who were you before you got disappointed? Do you remember?
I think every bout of wandering begins with a broken heart. I’m talking about the aimless kind of wandering here. There’s a scene in a movie I love so much where the male lead has just lost the woman he loves, and he starts to always be rushing off somewhere. His auntie asks him, “Where are you going?”. He turns around exasperated because he doesn’t know, he just has to keep going… somewhere. In the same way, isn’t all our wandering just a form of trying to avoid the feelings that come with processing what really happened?
Your life purpose is still locked up in that place. If you want to move forward in life, you have to go back there. You have to face what happened. You have to find it.
Don’t do it alone
My final comfort to you, dear friend, is that you don’t have to do it alone. I think that’s why we blow up and make such drastic changes sometimes – it’s because we’re trying to process something so massive by ourselves, when we were never meant to. And in fact, most big things in life you can’t process by yourself. Disappointment, hurt, pain, frustration, self doubt – these are things the heart can’t deal with by itself. It takes faith and it takes friends to bring the lost soul back home.
Don’t forget to pray for help. Don’t forget to reach out to the people who said they’d be there for you. It isn’t a weakness to ask for what you need.
Just some thoughts on this age old sentiment that we still cling to today. Just to further clarify, I’m not saying travel is bad. I hope you could catch that the main point of all of this is that the negative type of wandering is a state of the spirit and not a state of location.
How about you? What are some ways you’ve found it helpful to return to the path when you’ve lost your way?