I get lost. I get lost a lot! To Brian’s continual frustration, road trips for the football team often resulted in at least a couple moments of disorientation. I get lost in my own town, in the next town over, and it gets really hairy when I leave my familiar roaming grounds. When we travelled across the country one summer, he was terrified that I would get lost and he’d never see his father again. To help assure him that I could manage the trek, I printed out a state by state map colored in highlighter orange so he could help me keep track of our travels. On a day trip to the mall with my grandmother, I found myself lost in Western Mass. I am not sure it reassured her to hear me declare, “Yes, we’re lost, but don’t worry! I’ve been lost here before and it turned out okay.”
I’m not really lost until I can’t find my way home. That is when I call Keith. He is calm and cool in an emergency and has spent most of his life travelling around the state in an ambulance. If there is a hospital near, he probably has a mental map that will include the nearest gas station and a Dunkin Donuts. Wherever I am, whenever I call, he always starts with the same question. What do you see around you? He wants me to describe my surroundings. Is there a building, a sign, a landmark, that can help him determine where I am? Through my frustration (with myself) and sometimes tears, I describe my surroundings, offering as much detail as I can. With this information he has always been able to lead me home.
In this current season of disorientation, I am using that same methodology to find my bearings. On the pages of my journal I am describing the emotional and spiritual landmarks I can see nearby. I break down the sense of overwhelm by describing the emotions, thoughts, and experiences of this particular place. There is a certain sense of calm that attends this mapping process. It is as though labeling and arranging my experiences provides a sense of distance and perspective. The overwhelming feeling, I was experiencing in my head, lays flatter and smaller once it hits the page.
Sometimes, I pull out a huge drawing pad to visually describe and label the elements of my inner world. This visual practice helps me process big thoughts and emotions in ways that words sometimes cannot. Here is a gulf of grief, separating me from people I love. Here is a river of emotion, wide and moving swiftly. Over there, is the sheltering shade of long friendship to provide relief and encouragement. There are the people I look to for companionship as I find my way through. I can identify my own resources, my energy, vitality, and good humor (or lack of these things) as I evaluate my situation.
Whether I do this through words or pictures, this process allows me to reconsider my experience from multiple angles. Somehow, by tracing the inner landscape of my life, I can consider new possibilities. Am I knocking my head against a brick wall, or feeling frustrated and ready to give up? Maybe there is another way to see this. I use this map as a starting point, a landscape that while real, may not be entirely true. My experience, my feelings, and my thoughts are usually not the whole story. There is often more information needed to find my way to more solid ground.
Once I have a sense of this internal map, I can bring other practices to bear upon it. My analytical side can poke it with questions. I consider if my thoughts are true or helpful or if these feelings cover underlying fissures. I question my assumptions and weigh them against experience. I dredge up my history to look for patterns and similarities to things I’ve overcome in the past. I bring my theology to this table to consider how faith might respond in this circumstance.
One of the most important things I’ve learned to bring to this process is compassion. Learning to attend to my inner life with love and compassion means that while not everything I think or feel is good or true, it is important for me to be honest about what is happening inside my life. At least with myself… and God. While I wish I could tell you that what I find as I map out my inner world is filled with beauty and love alone. It is not. Greed, fear, jealousy, rage, and a host of difficult emotions can all be found in my inner landscape.
Denying these things, I believe, just gives them power. In the honest and tender acknowledgement of powerful emotions, I have found these uncomfortable sensations to be valuable teachers. These big emotions have important things to tell me. I am learning to listen to them, instead of being controlled by them. They offer a wisdom other gentler emotions rarely can. They can show me where there are weaknesses underlying in my life. Unmet needs sometimes can be identified near greed. Places of rawness are protected by anger. My own sense of inadequacy often fuels jealousy. I have found rage to be the guard over my most broken places.
This process isn’t an easy way out of the discomfort of this season. Instead, it seems to me to be a way through. A way to pay attention to and honor my experience. In these difficulty moments of uncertainty and loss, I find that mapping my inner chasms is a good place to start. Without a clear view of where I am, it is very difficult to begin to chart a course to where I want to be.
So, as you consider your own inner landscape today, what do you see?