Learning From Being Lost

by Lucretia Hurley-Browning

I keep notes on lots of things…..notes and lists.  Lists of what needs to be done….notes on what I am experiencing.  Over the weekend as I was ‘purging’ my computer of all kinds of lists and some notes, I came across a several-year-old note from a precious visit with a woman, two years into her then-latest treatment. Here is what I wrote:

“It is always an honor to be invited into the space of another. Today I felt deeply that honor, and it brought me into the precious world of cancer survivors, as patients, families, loved ones. What a journey.

One of the things that this woman shared with me was the trajectory of her journey.  She talked about having been lost for a while. This surprised her as she has always been a spiritual person. Most everyone gets lost a bit during this walk with cancer, she said.  ‘The amazing thing is you learn a lot about yourself when you are lost, and you come out of it a different and better person.’ And I agreed with her”.

‘The amazing thing is you learn a lot about yourself when you are lost, and you come out of it a different and better person.’

Can you remember a time when you have been lost?  As in REALLY lost? We can be lost physically or emotionally, and the experience is a bit the same.

Years ago as a college student, I worked one summer at a church day camp.  This is my kind of personal joy….living in the woods all day with 10 elementary kids! Truly I loved it. The trick is to keep them engaged, curious, and exhausted! I worked with a slightly crazy co-counselor (Mike) and together we creatively kept our group happy by always being a step ahead of them with fun activities that never ceased to amaze the Camp Director.  GREAT summer! 

One day, the director of the camp approached me to see if we would show some VIIP visitors a bit of the area. He just needed us to take them on a brief walk before lunch.  We said, oh sure….that would be fun….and off we went, Mike, me, 10 kids, and 4 Japanese men and women.  Our guests were delightful people who spoke impeccable English….which consisted of “it is so good to meet you”, “thank you”, and “where are the restrooms”?  Mike and I looked at each other and said, oh we can handle this….we’ll just walk them around and get them exhausted, just like we do with our group! So our brief walk turned into a fast-paced hike!

Now, I had hiked all over the camp group. I knew that area. At least I thought I did. Our plan was to take a shortcut to the lake, and then do a fast trek back to the lunchroom. A brisk walk would tire out the campers, and our visitors would not need to speak…just look! Great plan.

To this day I cannot tell you how we got lost. But we did. Trees look amazingly alike when there is not a path to follow. We hiked for an hour. This turned into more hours. The heat of the sun turned cooler. The campers were hungry.  Even our Japanese guests were gesturing the universal signs of feeding themselves. We were big-time lost.

Our plan had shifted to ‘fake it til you make it’. Mike, my co-counselor, and I just kept smiling, whistling, singing as we plunged forward with the group in tow. However, underneath the smiles were mounting waves of fear. We had no friggin’ idea where we were. So, we slowed down. We breathed. We told the truth finally, and even the Japanese seemed to know what we’d been trying to hide. We found we could communicate with a new language of the heart. We reassured ourselves and our hikers that we would be found.  We climbed a tree.  Got a different perspective. Saw a house and hiked toward that landmark, where there was a phone, and people who knew us found their way to us. A huge meal awaited us. Mike and I miraculously did not get fired and made it through to the end of summer, wiser and more humble counselors. And this hike became part of the folklore of the program.

As we journey in our lives, there just ARE times that we get lost. Certainly for many who get a cancer diagnosis in the midst of living, one can feel a little like……I was just going to the lake, I did not expect to get such a detour that brought me so far off my path!!!  It can feel like getting lost!!! Getting lost does feel terrible. Scary. Frustrating. A bit hopeless and uncertain. Not sure which way to go. Our minds race in circles.  So we slow down. We look for signs that we can recognize. We listen inside for not only what we need to do, but for what comes to us in this lost time. Like Mike and me, sometimes we do ‘fake it til we make it’. We learn new things in this lost time. We pay attention to things that we maybe have ignored. We learn new things about ourselves. We adapt. We create. We change. We are different on the other side of being lost. We find a new normal. We realize one day we are not so lost. Perhaps we are wiser and more humble.  Certainly, we are more grateful.

As the lovely patient said to me two years ago, ‘The amazing thing is you learn a lot about yourself when you are lost, and you come out of it a different and better person.’

 All of us handle our lost period differently. The trick is to remember that we don’t stay lost.

Lucretia Hurley-Browning, MDiv, MS, is a guest writer whose recent background includes Chaplain of  Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital and the Director of Juniper Tree Counseling Center. She is a therapist and ordained United Methodist Minister. Currently she is a writer by day, a reader by night, and is passionate about living life meaningfully with a good dose of fun.  

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