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.
So many great angles to take here, finding something interesting to look at. Being put (or putting oneself) into a space where all recognizable reference points have been obscured or erased or dissolved. In his book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Michael Pollan includes this comment from Mendel Kaelen, a post-doc at Imperial College London:
“Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction. Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.”
Here we are, where the snow globe is shaken up and you’re not beholden to navigating by any previous reference points. Fresh powder and you can ski where you want. Seems like the explorer in us must be drawn instinctively into lands where we have no points of reference. Otherwise, we’d be 7.8 billion hominids all packed into Olduvai Gorge.
Appending something else here, picking up on the “Master and Commander” cue. I have a brother who spent 35 years in the Marine Corps and served in numerous combat roles and leadership positions. I was with my buddies, on a buddies weekend in cabin on the Kentucky-Virginia state line. I was on the line with my bro and told him we were getting ready to eat some pulled pork and watch “Master and Commander.”
He said that he’d used that film to talk with his squadrons about leadership principles. I asked, “In what ways?” He replied…
“Master and Commander” is one of the most complete compendiums of the rewards and challenges of command, examples of various brands of military leadership, good examples of combat leadership, and the challenges of the frailties of human nature on all of the above, to include:
– Leadership by example
– Inspirational leadership
– Positive mentorship by senior officers of young officers
– Raw courage in many forms
– The role of tradition, especially with respect to development of camaraderie generation-to-generation
– Ability to physically and mentally overcome chaos and physical trauma of combat
– Command circulation after-engagement: travels the ship to check on causalities, check on the men, battle damage assessments
– Tactical excellence by way of locating, closing with, and engaging the foe
– Technical excellence by way of seamanship
– Tactical deception
– Application of Mission Type Orders
– The effects of a weak officer on the men
– The dynamic of superstition among the men
– Creativity in overcoming challenges
– Geo-political struggles at the micro-level in an expanding world
– The dialog and dialectic between the Commander and the Doc as a means of examining the challenges and limits of instilling good order and discipline (especially at sea), the role and danger of ego – especially for a commander, and the interplay between the advancement of civilized endeavors (the Doc) with the brutish application of violence and armed conflict
– Cool string music…
I’ve never watched “Master and Commander” the same way since.
Joe, you must have written that down at the time — I can’t believe you remembered all that and were able to type it up here! (I am adding M&C to my watch list. I don’t recall being that impressed with it when it came out.)
On topic, agreed, references are critical. Including the most basic: “How to I get to X?” has to start with, “Where am I starting from?”
Nom… sure did keep that list handy. I’ve shared it a couple times, and friends have always said, “Now I need to go watch that movie again.”
Now I need to watch Master & Commander. The movie I’ve always thought of as the quintessential leadership movie is “Apollo 13”.
The scene that hit me over the head was when Tom Hanks learns Gary Sinise has measles. (turns out Kevin Bacon has measles..should have taken that lesson about the ‘experts’ WAY before 2020 COVID shitshow but I digress…)
Tom tells the Doc, and I’ll paraphrase, “Come on Doc! You’re out of your mind! I NEED Sinise on this flight. I’m the Commander for Christ’s sake!”
Doc says, “Not your call Commander. Sinise sits.”
Then, when Hanks tells Sinise in the hanger, Gary jumps up all pissed off. “I’m not sick Boss! I’m fine! This is BS! F-Bomb Doctors!”
Hanks replies, “It is my call.”
So many other leadership examples–but that one hit me in the chest. Prior to that, I think I was a Staff Sergeant at the time, I would frequently say stuff like, “Hey Gents, I know this is fucked up, but the Commander says we gotta do ____”
I never owned the decisions I thought were stupid, and in throwing shade on the Commander, I made us weaker.
I actually met Gary Sinise about 10 years ago up here at Veteran’s 501C3. Super cool dude, and I told him that ‘Apollo 13’ is the best leadership movie of all time. We discussed that scene–he had never thought of the movie or that scene from a leadership perspective.
Love your posts–and laughed at the ‘buy in December’ admonishment. Been there.
Better than the fictional M & C is this Youtube documentarty of the real guy they used, I believe, as inspiration for the film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pU-kFUJoJEU
That scene struck me the first time I saw it, too: great leadership, but I always wondered whether that was really wide. In the long term, since it was the wrong call and he had disagreed with it, wouldn’t that waste some of his own leadership capital (per Jocko) with his men?
* wise, not wide
I think your wonderings are spot on–but, IMHO, Hanks did what he could to fight for his guy. He did stand up to the ‘tyranny of the experts’ as much as he could within the system.
But–and this is the big but for me–is that when it was apparent he didn’t have the power to change the outcome–he owned it 100%. That is what I failed to do previously as an NCO–and tried to embrace for the rest of my career.
Interestingly, again IMHO, is this is another example of how I have learned my most important lessons via the Humanities vs the ‘science’ or math or history or ‘facts’. It is only through narrative that I truly understand life’s most important lessons.
Brian… agreed. How a leader responds to and implements orders with which he or she disagrees is measure of judgment and integrity and character.
Here is great, I mean GREAT, scene depicting that kind of character in leadership. I’m sure many of us here have watched the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. In this scene from Episode 8, “The Last Patrol,” Colonel Sink wants the company to repeat a dangerous nighttime raid, on which one of the company had been killed the night before. Even though the company was being pulled off the line the following day, the colonel wanted them to go back across the river to grab more prisoners.
We’re led to believe that Maj Winters has made a calculation that this raid is to serve the colonel’s vanity and any captured German foot soldiers would be of limited tactical advantage. We understand Winters’ has decided the raid would subject his men to unnecessary risk, especially given they were being relieved the following day.
Look how he handles it. And the masterful acting by Damian Lewis… see the twinge of regret in Winters’ face after he instructs, “… you will report to me that you were unable to secure any live prisoners.” He does NOT take this decision lightly, and recognizes that he is transgressing.
Another leadership lesson nested in there: look closely at the face of young Lt Jones, fresh out of West Point and learning from Winters how leading men is not always by the book.
If you hold in mind that the core of this scene is Winters’ love for his men, you can almost be brought to tears by the scene.
AND looking forward to reading Steve’s latest. I gave the preorder link to my wife so she’d have something to put on my Christmas list. I’ve gotten in trouble in the past, presumptively buying things for myself during the month of December — when OF COURSE all my wants and needs should first be reflected on her shopping list.
LOL! It’s hard to do when a signed Govt. Cheese comes out the same month as Christmas and our Unbirthday, Joe!! 🙂
A very very merry Unbirthday to you, from me! (Just finished 1899 on Netflix last night, so the Alice references were truly great!!)
AND I want to be the owner of any first editions of foreign-language translations of Steve’s memoir. Oh, to see these titles on the covers:
Spanish: Queso del Gobierno
Italian: Formaggio del Governo
French: Fromage du Gouvernement
Your wisdom and comments always inspire. If I don’t say it enough, please read this today. Thank you for sharing it with us!! I always learn something from you.
Need to echo Kate here Joe. Always, always, always love your posts.
Always love reading your comments, too, Kate!
Just read this quote from you in Maureen’s blog, Joe. Amazing stuff!! Inspiring as always.
Order placed Steve, looking forward to the read. Merry Christmas!
“We are free now to find new reference points.” These are not just new. They are the ones you chose, not assigned.
You went into the wilderness and were lost without a reference to find the path for yourself. It is not following the examples in “Navigation for Dummies” or Mom and Dad wanted me to be a doctor.
The new north star is your own and unique. That is why it is so significant.
Well said. I’d say that is why it is so significant AND so hard to find. We are mimicking creatures. Rene Girard’s work on Memetic Desire is devastatingly eye-opening, disheartening, and inspiring all at the same time.
What do we REALLY want? Maybe one of the most important ‘tasks’ of the Wilderness is akin to smelting the dross. We have to be stripped of all desires that are unauthentic. Painful, but who wants to have a piece of ore instead of the gold?
Yes Steve, I am creating new reference points … Or following them … Being guided by them, which is more accurate I believe … I offer the following from Napoleon Hill, “Realize, and prove to your own satisfaction by making it so, that every adversity, sorrow, or defeat, whether or not you caused it to happen, contains the seed of an equivalent benefit which you can nurture into a blessing that soars above the disaster that brought it.”
Monday morning I found myself saying, thinking “Read Pressfield every night, along with Wattles … Until you turn pro.” Later that morning, as I went out to walk the dog, there was a dresser at the curb. An elderly lady was spirited away by relatives, leaving virtually everything behind. The landlord was clearing out the apartment. On top of the dresser were three books. Two lying flat, one standing upright. I decided to check out the one standing upright … I saw the name Steven Pressfield. This is amazing. It was Tides of War. I decided to appropriate it. I’ve begun reading it.
In my less-than-materialistic view of the world–I’d call that dresser a Divine Intervention-or at least a Divine Clue. Godspeed.
“We want to be cut free.” My mind immediately went to an umbilical cord? It is time I cut the cord from my past and starting taking responsibility for my future under the stars. Lovely post today.
Btw, I thought I had a dream job in a piano school, but I did tell my boss to “shove it”. She was cruel with her gaslighting, screaming fits, and other abuse toward employees yet everyone walked on eggshells around her. One day, after months of enduring her cruel moods, I came into work fully dressed. I sat down at the computer and logged in to check the schedule for the day. She came out in a good mood. An hour later, she returned and blamed me for something I most certainly did not do yet again (one of her many rumors she told people is that I was stealing guitar picks WTF?!). I waltzed in her office. I looked her dead in the eyes. I said “You are abusive to me when I’ve been loyal to you. I QUIT.”. I set my key down and grieved for months. Moved on since…that was 4 years ago now. Lesson? Bystanders are worse than the bully.
Happy Holiday season to each and every one of you. <3
I love it. Bystanders are complicit. We are all complicit. We are all to blame.
Was thinking about responsibility for myself, and the idea of ‘taking the responsibility of the world’ on one’s own shoulders while at our off-leash dog park today.
Most people bring their own poop bags and pick up their dog’s mess–but, there are always landmines in the park as well. This part is huge–1 mile in perimeter–and often I imagine dogs go poop when their owners are not aware of it.
So, as I stepped over a turd today and thought, “Why don’t people pick up their poo…” I realized I had poop bags with me, and could have very well picked it up myself. Removed one landmine so others may not step in it.
I think that is the idea of ‘taking responsibility for the world’. I decided I’ll pick up any poo I see from now on–and I also think it might be the key to happiness. When I’m picking up poo my dogs didn’t leave–I’m doing this for other dogs and people–and I”m out of my own head–for a moment–and that is got to be about 90% of happiness/contentment alone. I’m not the lead actor for a moment, and I feel relieved.
Oh, I forgot to add…I just have to be on guard that this does not become some kind of self-righteous virtue signal. That’s even worse than being a bystander. Hall monitor with righteous indignation. Gross.
Haha, totally agree Brian!! I was so beaten down by this previous boss, that I wanted ONE colleague to stand up to her so she didn’t always take it all out on me. It’s all good though. Assholes often teach stubborn asses like me how NOT to do something or treat someone. It all worked out in the end!!
Excellent post today. Cut free and lost. Yes, tough, hardest thing ever. It was Hell. Also BEST thing ever to happen to me. I shed the bullshit. I am all me now.
And I’m not adding Steve’s book to my list. I’m not taking the chance of the book NOT being under the tree. Merry Christmas to me. Wishing all a great week and a merry season.
“We join the Foreign Legion.”
I enlisted in the Army within a week of receiving my first “F” at ‘extended high school’, or Modesto Junior College in the spring of 1988. Book keeping. I took that class because I had dropped Accounting earlier, that class required more homework than I was willing to consider.
This class was so easy that I never bought a book, I just looked at the book of my classmate. First class after lunch, and this class was M-F, each day for an hour. There was a Mexican restaurant nearby that provided refried beans and tortillas with a beer order. The fact they never carded us was delightful, and we got drunk at lunch for a week straight. I never returned to class after that week long bender, knowing the prof would drop me. He didn’t. He failed me.
When I got his grade, I ran to his class and asked him, “Bro, why didn’t you drop me?”
“Brian, why didn’t you come talk to me?”
SHAME. I enlisted before telling any of my closest friends. Was certain they’d talk me out of it, and I would stay in the Central Valley drinking and using drugs until I died around 30.
While the military was a shadow career, and I remained ‘lost’ for years, there were great lessons about how to navigate/live that kept me alive. I wasn’t sure what/whom I was running from, but knew I’d die if I stayed.
While the Army never showed me my own North Star, it did teach me the fundamentals of how to get there once I finally found it. All behaviors tied to values. Pretty darn simple.
We lost one of our older cats last night. Had appt to euthanize at 0950 this morning at our vet. Kelly wakes me up at 0125, “Phoebe is breathing too fast.” Kelly sleeps on pins & needles when any of our animals are unwell.
We drove her to emergency vet 20 min later, and she passed while sitting on Kelly’s lap on the way to the vet.
All last night I thought about the times I was impatient with Phoebe. The times I let my frustrations with the world (my response to the world is more honest) and allowing that to sting others with my stray voltage.
Last night, while looking deep into myself, I realized that most of my running hasn’t been due to trauma, abuse, neglect, betrayal–the shit no one escapes in this life–what has driven me to dive back into the wilderness time and time again is this:
For most of my life, I have been afraid to listen to my own conscience and live accordingly. This will be an interesting writing exercise for me–but I think if I trace all of my aberrant behaviors over the years back–I will find a time when I betrayed myself, my Self maybe, and this disappointment/shame has motivated all the running/hiding.
It wasn’t what happened to me, it was how I responded that shames me.
When I was in the 5th grade, three of us went ‘hunting’ with BB guns in our suburban paved alleys. Seriously, the alleys in Modesto are paved. I shot a bird, and watched it fall to its death from a power line. Immediately burst into tears, had to get a shoebox and bury it. I have never since shot an animal. Recently I realized that my shame wasn’t because I had hunted. My shame was because I had murdered innocence.
I am finally beginning to understand that for me, “Turning Pro” is not just about production, art, creation–it is also learning to live congruently when the Divine voice inside me that I’ve gagged for years and years and years.
Sorry about your cat, bsn. And, I like your idea about Turning Pro. I think you’re right.
A rather large unintended consequence, or unexpected outcome of an animal rescue is becoming ridiculously familiar with loss. I heard a Gold Star father (Gold Star’s are people who lost a family member in combat BTW) talk about his grief of his son.
“Grief is the price of love.” was a bit of advice someone told him. It has stuck with me. So succinct. So brilliant. Exactly on point.
Thank you as well for your concurrence on Turning Pro. Always feels great to get a nod when you’re out a bit too far for safety–and someone agrees.
Hey Brian & Kelly–
So sorry about the passing of your cat. Bonds with animals are special because the not only span species, but language barriers. We get to know our pets through love. When I euthanized my greyhound at an old age of 14, my vet sent a card that said it all:
“We don’t get them very long, but the short time in our lives we do mean so much”…they make an impact!!
I’m so lost at the moment I don’t even know if I am! All my reference points are too depressing to provide any comfort, and I’m trying to postpone deciding how I feel about that — at least until I read Steve’s new book.
At least we have this place to ruminate, question, and reassert our willingness to try. While you may currently feel lost, your posts have been navigation points for me over the years Maureen.
Thanks for the lift on an otherwise dreary evening, Brian!
I second Brian, Maureen!! Your stars will shine so brightly in the dark sky–very very soon. We have to re-evaluate re-invent and re-assess from time to time as creators. We see your light!
Today’s post reminds me Master & Commander is one of my favorite movies. It also reminds me of a great book called “117 Days Adrift,” about a British couple who survived at sea in a raft. They actually got pretty good at it, and at one point the husband decides they need to stop thinking about being rescued. I think the quote was “our place is here now, among the turtles and the birds.” My wife and I say this to each other all the time whenever we’re stuck somewhere, literally or metaphorically. “Our place is here, now….”
I think it was Eckhart Tolle in one of his books talking about how people get upset at being stuck in traffic. In his quirky voice and simple observation, I saw myself getting all wound up about traffic so many times. So silly. What, exactly, are you able to do when the highway is a parking lot?
“Our place is here, now.” So simple, yet so profound.
I love getting stuck in traffic! It makes me feel as if I’m somewhere other people want to be.
And, yes. I realize I’m in the minority…
Thank you very much dear Steve,
my first thought is this: I had my reference points while writing my book these 4-5 last years, especially the last two, when I could focus on it with no mundane job to distract me. But COULD THE REFERENCE POINTS OF MY VERY DREAM HAD HAD BEEN ROTTEN? This could be something interesting. Could I had entered a state of swamp, so that the reference points were doing no good from then on to my dream, to the roadmap of my soul? Yes, I could. I can’t describe it perfectly: It’s like my journey for searching inside me meanings of life -to connect them to the pages of the book I write- had reached a kind of dead-end swarm, and maybe Assistance, behind the Mask of Resistance, gave me a hard push -knocked me down- when it forced me one month ago to lose all my book’s reference points and be thrown into the wilderness.
And from wilderness to find the new reference points.
Is Assistance behind all acts of Resistance?
What a shock. Must keep my mind on it but I don’t know how.
To lose your dream’s road only to find it again, to kill your dream to let the Phoenix soul of it be reborn again.
Must wait and be vigorous but also wise.
Brian, I agree. Godspeed to you as well … Thanks …Sorry about the cat too … Peace, Carl
This is why I keep reading your posts. Brilliant!
Really well said, thank you.
Lost at Sea has become the metaphor in my life. While there is a deep beauty to the eerie of the open sea, navigating to place where I understand value and people’s needs, becomes a bleak proposition after so many years without any indication of drawing closer. Anywhere would be better than here–after years of unrelenting sameness.
Occasionally, there is radio communication with distant shores. Some navigated a way back home, others never left. Through the crackle of the transmission they can’t help me, if I can’t tell where I am.
to give a result, it takes a long time and try hard. thank you.
Your article was very impressive to me. It was unexpected information,but after reading it like this, I found it very interesting.
Dear Amazon, thank you for sending me an email revealing Govt. Cheese was available for preorder with Steve reading. (Visualize a bat out of hell smashing that button to order.)
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