THE ART OF LOSING YOUR WAY by Mishkat Bhattacharya

March 31, 2017

I have a terrible sense of direction – I could get lost in a cubicle. It’s always difficult for me to reach my destinations, they seem to be harder to find than customer service. And having arrived, there is no guarantee that I will be able to find my way back – that’s a separate problem. As Yogi Berra said, “You have to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

A study of biology offers neither help nor illumination on this state of affairs: if you look around in the animal kingdom, you find most creatures have excellent navigation skills. For example, mice can find their targets from miles away, dogs from hundreds of miles away, and migrating birds from thousands of miles away. In contrast, it only takes me two left turns to completely lose my bearings.

Turning to psychology, the situation seems a little more hopeful. Indeed, some analysis suggests that a part of our unconscious may actually want us to lose our way – so we can confront the unknown.  Clearly, that part is required to explain the popularity of labyrinths and mazes. Why else would someone submit to a byzantine arrangement of hedges that confounds their movement around a plot of land which they could otherwise negotiate blindfolded? A similar type of reasoning, I believe, is needed to explain the existence of people who want others to lose their way. These are the folks who cannot resist the temptation to give you directions even when they are not sure about where you are going.

An examination of history is even more encouraging. It reveals that since the earliest times, there have been organized efforts to prevent people from getting lost, and these have resulted in major civilizational achievements. The Stonehenge was clearly a marker put down for such a purpose, as were the pyramids of Egypt. Yet another example is provided by the Great Wall of China, which was evidently built to prevent people from going over to the other side and getting lost. At some point in history, it actually did become impossible to lose your way – because all roads led to Rome – but things seem to have gone back to normal since the fall of the Empire. At even later times, losing your way came to be considered a glorious and desirable profession. People like Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Marco Polo were in truth paid to get lost – receiving substantially funded mandates to venture into the unknown. “Your Majesty,” the explorer would say, “I don’t really know where I’ll be going.” “Perfect,” the monarch would reply, “Here are three ships and a hundred sailors.”

Literature also provides good reasons for thinking that getting lost could well be a creative act. Think of how many bestsellers have been written about people who lost their way – The Odyssey, Gulliver’s Travels, Life of Pi; recall one of the best known lines in all of literature: “Toto…I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”; realize, that getting lost is perhaps the first qualification for writing a self-help book.

Of course, the origins of many technologies lie in the efforts of human beings trying to conquer the problem of navigation. In fact it was such a big problem that we had to send satellites into space and set up a Global Positioning System. In order to make that solution foolproof, some people are now even pushing for driverless cars. But I am not sure I would want to reach a stage where all elements of chance have completely been removed from my wandering; you see, I am still hoping to stumble on to a store that sells vanilla ice cream inside a chocolate crepe. The art of losing our way, therefore, needs to be preserved.

Mishkat Bhattacharya is an Assistant Professor of Physics at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York, a place on earth that has three seasons: almost winter, winter, and…still winter.

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