As I sit in a tiny hotel room in east Rome, with the sun long set behind grey clouds and ancient monuments erected to the remarkable tenacity and creativity of humanity, I’m struck at how comfortable we are with being comfortable. Every day in the city, crowds of hurried tourists on holiday rush by, following their captain–a tour guide waving a red umbrella so that nobody gets lost. They stare at benchmarks of history through the viewfinders of their cameras, then snap frantic pictures of sculptures and artwork that was crafted while Western Europe was still barbarian tribes. And they trudge from place to place, as fixed and consistent as if they were on a track. Don’t wander too far, be on time, hurry up, catch up, let’s go, next stop, right, left, right this way.
And so it goes.
I often find myself falling into this mindset; as human beings, we don’t like being lost. The idea that someone is in charge is comforting. We may search foreign shores and seek out the things that broaden and bend our perspective, but we like to do so under the trained hand of one who knows where to go. Everybody likes going rock climbing when they’re on belay; it takes a special type of childish fascination and risk to climb without ropes.
And yet Jesus said to become like little children. So maybe there’s something to getting in a little over our heads. Perhaps the best way to live wholly and completely is to neglect the instinct of clinging to the safe and the known and venture out onto the ocean, even if we don’t have a boat. After all, the worst we can do is sink–and the best way to learn how to swim is necessity.
Saint Augustine once said something along the lines of “The world is a book, and if you never travel you are only reading one page.” That doesn’t mean every one should pack their bags for a far flung city (although it would surely be a good and decent thing if they had the opportunity to). But it does imply that as human beings, we should view the world as more than the sum total of our own personal experiences. And comfort is an experience that most folks are familiar with, especially us Americans. The entire American dream is rooted around concepts such as comfort and stability. Get an education so you can get a job. Get a job so you can get a family. Get a family and then build a house. Build a house so you can fulfill the illusion of security.
While these things are not wrong, this life we live is not stable in nature. We learn to speak by stuttering. We learn to walk by falling. Why do we stop? Learning to read was arduous for me and a vicious batte for years; does that mean I shouldn’t have tried? When I was a child I thought like a child and I acted like a child. When I grew up, I put my childish ways behind me. I learned that flawed and garbled speech is a necessary phase. I came to appreciate the scars on my hands and knees because they taught me how to run and jump and play. I traded my fear of being lost for a trust that I will make it home. And I learned that home may not be where I thought it was.
Knowing where you are is nice–the bed with the shape of my body pressed into it, the roads on which I know each pothole and dip–it’s easier on me. It’s hard to picture being lost and not having a guide to tell me how to get back to my suburban apartment and my Keurig coffee maker. But there comes a point when we will be asked to give up everything we hold and embrace life. And like the wealthy young man in the Gospel of Luke, the more that we have, the harder this will be. If we have never fallen, we will not learn how to walk. If we have never been lost, we will not be able to venture into the unknown.
Foreign lands can be intimidating. High walls of ancient concrete jut up above the cobbled and uneven streets and sometimes everywhere you turn there’s the impression of being in a hedged-in maze. A different language means communication is sometimes impossible beyond a kind nod or a sympathetic glance. Yet still–wander around. It could be Rome, it could be the town down the road, it could be a waitress you don’t have the nerve to talk to.
Yet still–wander around. Twirl and spin to a dance that you don’t know. Jump when you can’t see. Put off the robe of respectability and try on the habit of Saint Francis. Learn to laugh at yourself; learn how to stand back up.
And for God’s sake, go get lost.