Navigating without the stars
If you’ve ever studied land or celestial navigation, you know that both systems are based on reference points. From our frigate HMS Surprise off the coast of Patagonia, if we take a compass bearing on that headland off Rio Gallegos and another on the summit of Cerro Norte and scribe them both on a nautical chart, where the lines intersect is our position.
We now know where we are.
You and I do the same thing every morning as we surface from sleep. “Ah, there’s my spouse next to me in bed … clock says 6:47 … dog is snoring on the carpet. Bathrobe. Slippers. Email …”
Each is a reference point. Each assures us that the Earth hasn’t spun off its axis during the night; we’re still alive and sane; life goes on in a manner with which we’re familiar.
A period “in the wilderness,” on the other hand, is by definition a passage without reference points.
Here’s a paragraph from my new memoir, Govt Cheese:
I wake up in my van. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know who I am. The reality of my existence is that my identity, if I ever had one, has dissolved. Goals. Do I have any? I can’t even conceive of the possibility. A purpose? To survive until tomorrow. I open the van’s side doors. It’s warm. I’m in a dirt turnout at the edge of a farmer’s field. Corn. Oh yeah, I’m in Iowa. Where, I have no clue. It takes me a moment to remember where I’m going. East? West? Where am I coming from?
Goals and a purpose are reference points too. They ground us. “Oh yeah, I’m doing this so I can get into Harvard!”
But in the wilderness, we don’t have those reference points. We are free-floating. We’re unmoored, unhinged, untethered.
And yet …
And yet, in many ways, the reason we have bungled or self-destructed or self-ejected our way into the wilderness, whether we realize it or not, is to blow up all points of reference.
We want to be lost.
We want to be cut free.
Because something was rotten in our prior state of Denmark. Our old reference points had led us to a dead end, a place of desperation (again, whether we realize this or not.) So we blow them up. We commit some crime/faux pas/outrage. We tell our boss to take this job and shove it. We bolt from our marriage. We join the Foreign Legion.
We leave the Ordinary World and step through the looking glass into the Inverted World. In this world, hatters are mad and every birthday is an Un-birthday.
It’s no fun to live without reference points. It’s hell. We wouldn’t wish it on our worst enemy. And yet, now that we’re here, there’s something exhilarating about the sheer formlessness and open-possibility-ness of everything.
We are free now to find new reference points. And with luck to locate our position on the chart in a place that we never knew existed but that is true, at last, to who we really are.
P.S. My story of my own passage through the wilderness—GOVT CHEESE: A Memoir—becomes available for preorder today! Pub date: 12/30. Signed first edition hardbacks can be pre-ordered right now at www.stevenpressfield.com.