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It’s a story that many people have lived through, from one side or the other. You’re a child in a busy department store, tethered to your mother’s side by her firm grip on your hand, your eyes constantly drawn left and right by the colorful displays. She lets go to grab something or talk to a salesperson, and you see an exciting toy or stuffed animal and run to it. After playing with it for a few minutes you try to walk back, but your mother is gone. First a wave of confusion hits you, but it is quickly overcome by dread. You are alone and lost in a sea of noise and people.
When great philosophers or authors talk or write of being “lost” they can mean all sorts of things, but few are as visceral as the feeling of being lost that a child in a situation like that can experience. Even if there’s a good chance the child is in no danger at all, the feeling of dread that accompanies feeling alone and lost in a crowded department store can be terrifying. Most people will have their first feeling of being lost as being literally, physically lost as children, whether it is in a department store, or in a large park, or simply down the next street. It makes sense, then, to start defining what it means to be “lost” with the experience of a child.
What about that deep, philosophical “lost,” though? When people say they feel lost (as opposed to being physically lost) they often are referring to alienation of some sort. One way that people address alienation that serves as a good comparison is religion. People who believe strongly in their religion will often feel like they are spiritually “in place.” On the other hand, if some tragedy or crisis of identity strikes, they might suddenly feel spiritually lost. The same dread that a child who can’t find his mother feels in the department store can be felt by an adult who experiences a tragic accident and loses their belief in their religion.
These definitions of lost could apply five hundred years ago just as easily as they apply today. I believe, though, that every era has challenges that are unique to it, and the information age is no exception. The “information age” really is aptly named, because in today’s fast-paced world we are hit with more information than any humans have ever faced. As modern people, we are constantly inundated with a flood of information everywhere we turn. Magazines and newspapers and books and nutrition labels and billboards and television programs – they’re all feeding us new information every waking moment. All these mediums pale in comparison to the true information mother lode though: the internet. With computers, people gain access to the vast majority of the world’s information at their fingertips. With the increasing popularity of internet-connected smart phones and tablet computers, though, this information is not only at our fingertips but always at our fingertips.
What does the internet have to do with alienation and being lost? The sensory overload that Wikipedia and Youtube provide can be great for keeping people entertained, but it can also be all too easy to get lost in. Many people know the feeling of logging onto a computer or smart phone with a single goal in mind – sending an email, perhaps, or checking the weather next week – and spending not five minutes but an hour and a half, as the myriad attractions of the digital age distract them. Just like the child in the department store, people can be drawn to the colorful displays of the internet, and realize only when it is too late that they are lost.
So, then, we can define (at least) three different ways that people can be lost. There is the physical “lost” – not knowing where you are physically. There is also the spiritual “lost” – not feeling at peace with your own existence. Finally, there is the information age “lost” – being trapped, pinned beneath ever-growing piles of information that your mind will never have time to process all of. All three of these forms of being lost have something in common: they feel bad, but are actually ultimately helpful.
Since it’s been established previously that being lost is connected to being alienated, it might seem contradictory that it is actually a good thing. After all, those feelings associated with being lost – hopelessness, dread, despondence – are all quite uncomfortable and even painful to feel. Nobody likes to feel like they don’t know where they are in life, like they are out of place. No child likes the feeling of separation from their loved ones. And certainly nobody likes to look up and realize they’ve just wasted three hours of their lives they’ll never get back watching funny videos about cats on the internet. Overall, all the emotions that being lost makes people feel are negative – but all the negativity serves a purpose.
Without darkness, there’s no light, and without being lost, there’s no being found. There’s an old stereotype that people who are on a bad path in life will never be able to clean up their act until they hit the lowest possible point, and in a way getting lost can be like that. Realizing that they are lost can be the ultimate wake up call.
It’s easy to demonstrate how getting lost once or twice in a physical way can help someone. Going back to the example of the child in the department store, what is most likely to happen is that the child will have a harmless scare for a while and then be re-united with its mother. While in the short-term both the child and its parents will be scared, in the long-term the child will hopefully learn not to stray far from its parents in an unfamiliar place. If the person getting physically lost is an adult instead of a child, they may learn the value of being more prepared (by bringing a map on a road trip, perhaps) or even the value of asking other people for directions.
Spiritual periods of being lost can be similarly helpful to a person’s growth and development. Someone who’s faith has never been tested may continue to go on acting as they do while life is easy, but if things get harder they won’t know what to do. On the other hand, if someone experiences a tragedy or unexpected twist in their life their faith might be challenged and tested. Even though they may feel horribly lost during this period, they may emerge from it with a new, stronger faith in their beliefs. On the other hand, if they find their beliefs to be lacking, they may instead have new personal revelations and growth that will lead them to a belief system that they more truly support.
Getting lost in the information age is less easy to define than the more traditional ways people get lost. In many cases, people embrace the information overload and dive right in. Every day, people’s jobs and education can require them to submerse themselves in the sea of information that is the internet. It is hard to say what the consequences of people being inundated with so much information will be. The easy access (and unavoidable flood) of information is a relatively new thing, that has only been around to this degree for at most a bit over a decade, so the implications have yet to be seen.
What is it to be lost? There are at least a handful of answers to this question, but in the broadest terms possible, being lost is being alienated from one’s surroundings. Everybody gets lost from time to time in one way or another, and that will likely never change. Getting lost can be uncomfortable and scary, but getting lost is an important part of life. Through getting lost and then finding themselves again, people can grow and learn more about themselves and their surroundings. So what is it to be lost? To be lost is to be in a state of change: to be lost is to be down, but coming back up, to be in trouble but in hope of being found again.