Get lost en route to getting found

The ongoing financial chaos has not only devastated people who have lost jobs and homes and hope, it has struck a resounding blow against order and predictability. The exhilaration of certainty has given way to the weariness of worry. It’s no wonder we feel bereft, even dazed and confused. Where are we headed?

Such questions recall the Buddhist story about a man on horseback galloping past a monk. “Where are you going?” yells the monk. The man replies, “I don’t know — ask my horse.”

In recent months we too have often felt that we’re riding on a runaway horse. We struggle to sort things out. Yet uncertainty prevails — even among the supposed financial experts. Who knows what the next six months or two years will bring?

It’s quite natural for people to feel perplexed — and perhaps even paralyzed — by the extraordinary circumstances that have converged to disorient and dishearten us. Despair is the absence of hope, and many people are despairing.

Yes, lamentation has its place, but it’s not enough to bemoan our situation: We need to move forward. Trauma can be a great teacher. The economic crisis is beginning to reveal fresh opportunities to those bold and creative enough to seize them.

Consider the panache displayed by the World War I French officer who reported to headquarters during the Battle of the Marne: “My center is giving way, my right is in retreat. Situation excellent, I am attacking.”

Today, however, our enemy is more elusive. It’s not so much an advancing army as it is a stalemating fear. How do we deal with the unknown depth and duration of our economic malaise?

One option is to do nothing, to wait for clarity and direction. Another is to lash out against the people and forces that have caused the financial meltdown. A more constructive choice is to acknowledge that life sometimes poses mysteries to be embraced rather than problems to be solved.

At times we attack uncertainty by leveraging the power of the unknown, as often occurs in the martial arts. On other occasions, we confront the unknown in an effort to absorb its energies. Out of the roiling darkness may come beneficial light.

That is the theme of a provocative book with an intriguing title by the cultural essayist Rebecca Solnit. It is called “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.” The book’s lucid narrative trumpets the counterintuitive notion that we occasionally benefit from being lost.

To never have been lost, Solnit says, is never to have lived. Echoing the Jewish tradition at Passover of leaving a door open for the prophet Elijah to visit, Solnit urges us to “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go” in the end.

Solnit reminds us that it is important to remain open to chance and the unknown, for it is only by relinquishing certainty that we approach the divine.

There is, in other words, great value in exploring the unforeseen — and in remaking ourselves in the process. Confusion beckons; clarity awaits. Somewhere in the distance of our murky economic dilemma lies the opportunity for new discoveries, clarifying insights and the impetus for new growth.

So let us resolve to traverse the unmapped territory of our future not with gloomy foreboding or unspoken terror or vengeful rage but with eager anticipation for what good and unexpected things might emerge from the unknown.

By embracing the mystery of uncertainty, we will find its own forms of beauty and energy and coherence — and we will discover in ourselves the ironic capacity to be renewed and even transformed by the shock of insecurity.

In reflecting about his experience living alone at Walden Pond in the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable, experience to be lost in the woods ... 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.”

So, like the horseman in the Buddhist story, let’s enjoy the hellbent ride into the unknown. It may not be the best of times, but it doesn’t need to be the worst of times either. Endings do provide beginnings; darkness does bring light.

David Shi is president of Furman University and the author of “The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture.”