When the Unfamiliar Becomes Familiar
What I learned from Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”
Two weeks after my last university exam I moved to South Africa. I had been accepted into a one-year gap year program and was really looking forward to it, but looking back now, I realize that much of my excitement actually was about the leaving more than the arriving.
I know now what I wanted. I wanted to get lost.
I had a desire for transformation, I wanted to become someone else. I wanted to grow in wisdom, inspiration, love, confidence, and vision. The only way to find these things was to extend myself into the unknown, to go where I had not been, to consciously get lost, leaving behind all that was familiar in the hopes that in the unfamiliar I would find what I was looking for, but I could only fully embrace transformation by accepting that I didn’t know what lay on the other side and allow myself to fully become lost.
To be lost is to be without stability, support, or control. It’s not just about the familiar falling away, it’s about being fully surrounded by the unfamiliar. There is no concept of direction, there is only forward. We can get lost at different levels in different parts of our life. We face the unfamiliar when new relationships begin or old ones end. We face it when babies are born or loved ones die. We face it in a new job, a new school, or a new town.
Being lost can be empowering and transformative, but it is not a place we can stay forever. There are two ways by which we can cease to be lost.
- We can return to the familiar.
- We can turn into something else.
If we get lost, it means the world has become bigger than our knowledge of it. So whether we choose to return to the familiar or turn ourselves into something else, the time of being lost will change our perspective and bring clarity. But, when we embrace the unfamiliar we can truly be transformed.
Being thrown into another culture can be a catalyst for incredible growth, but only if we are willing to be transformed.
Since that first move to South Africa eight years ago, I have moved to the Middle East and have now spend the last six years in Qatar. During my years as an expat I have witnessed many people going through this. People (especially westerners) who haven’t lived overseas before stick out like sore thumbs when they arrive. They have this wide-eyed look that lets you know they’re lost and they constantly compare everything to the place they came from. In my experience, it often takes six months for people to decide whether they are going to return to the familiar or whether they are willing to be transformed.
When I first moved to South Africa, it was a rough transition. I lived with people who spoke a different language, in a house with unreliable internet, intermittent water pressure, and a huge wall surrounding the property. I had to use a new currency, drive on the other side of the road, and take security measures that I’d never even thought about while growing up in Canada.
In her book, Solnit writes about how the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay. Like a caterpillar who dissolves in the cocoon, it is only when we fully, and often abruptly, emerge on the other side that this specific transformation is complete.
When we’re lost we’re weak, we’re vulnerable, and we’re unsure. It’s when we cease to be lost that the true transformation happens. To be lost is to surrender. I can’t be lost while holding on to the familiar. That first month in South Africa I had a choice, I could embrace the unfamiliar, lean into it, learn from it, or I could fight it. By trying to transform the unfamiliar into that which we are already familiar with, is to refuse to accept that we are lost. As a result, we can never move forward through it. We will either stagnate in this in-between place we’ve created, or we eventually find our way back to where we were before.
Moving into a foreign culture is a unique, and perhaps extreme, example of growing and transforming by embracing the unfamiliar. However, the principle remains the same. Solnit writes:
“Something of the journey between the near and far goes on in every life. Sometimes, an old photo or friend reminds you that you’re not who you once were. Without noticing, you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar feels strange and uncomfortable.”
Now, whenever I travel to Canada to visit family, I feel like a visitor. The things that used to be familiar feel different, but it’s not them that has changed, it’s me. My perspective has shifted, the lens through which I view the world has changed. The things that used to challenge me are now easy, the things I once feared are surprisingly small. I’m stronger, wiser, kinder, and have greater sight than I did when I left. Am I the strongest, the wisest, or kindest? No. I’m wise enough to know I have a long way to go, but I’m only comparing myself to previous versions of myself. Getting lost provides the opportunity to get to know yourself.
Where are you fighting? Where are you looking back? The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but if you get lost looking for it, you may gain the wisdom and perspective to enjoy it better than before. So step outside your comfort zone, don’t look back. Submit to the unknown instead of trying to turn it into the place you left.
In her book, Rebecca Solnit asks the question, “How do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” What I have learned is that you simply need to follow your fear. We naturally fear the unknown, but take the plunge. You may get lost for awhile, in fact, I hope you do, but when you make it through to the other side, you won’t recognize yourself. To see our own strengths, especially where we thought there was weakness is one of the greatest gifts of getting lost.