Thoreau on the benefits of getting lost (Walden 120)

“It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time.”

Are you kidding me, Henry?

In truth, “lost” is more a matter of attitude than anything else. It’s said that the great woodsman Daniel Boone claimed that he’d never been lost, though “I was once bewildered for three days.” Only those who can live off the land can afford to look at it that way.

So what does it mean to be lost? Henry was no Daniel Boone, and, as usual, he has something larger in mind. He continues:

“Often in a snow-storm, even by day, one will come out upon a well-known road and yet find it impossible to tell which way leads to the village. Though he knows that he has travelled it a thousand times, he cannot recognize a feature in it, but it is as strange to him as if it were a road in Siberia.

“By night, of course, the perplexity is infinitely greater. In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round — for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost — do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as be awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction.

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

I said that Thoreau was no Daniel Boone. That’s true if we’re talking about physical woods, but he was sort of a Daniel Boone of the intellect, or at least that was his ambition. Are you afraid of having your view of the world challenged? Are you afraid of losing your intellectual or moral bearings, of being ignorant? Do you resist those times when the world ceases to make sense? That’s the kind of lost that Henry is talking about. Take away everything you thought you knew, all the ways you once related to the world. What do you have left? Who are you now?

It can be a time of discovery and growth, if you let it. Live off the land where you are. Pay attention to your surroundings. Move deliberately, watch and wait. The world is a much larger and more complex place than your previous conception of it. But if you stay with it, you will, in time, find yourself again in a new and expanded world.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


2 thoughts on “Thoreau on the benefits of getting lost (Walden 120)

  1. buddy71

    i have had the “pleasure” to have been lost in the “woods” on a couple of occasions. the feeling of acceptance of that fact was not something i enjoyed. i do have a very good sense of direction which, looking back on my life, i seemed to always have. i dont feel my personal life direction has ever bothered me or that i have felt “lost in life”. i may not know for a short time where i am, but i seem to find my bearings quickly, maybe i should write about those times one day in my blog. lol


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