There is a certain romantic appeal about lost things.
Ships that have been lost at sea haunt the imaginations of storytellers for generations, and lost aeroplanes set all sorts of elaborate theories in motion.
Lost people, too, have throughout history and literature carried with them a certain romantic appeal: Coleridge’s wandering narrator in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the ranger Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, and Tove Jansson’s wandering vagabond Snufkin all have many devoted followers. In the music world too, a fascination with the idea of living life as an endless tour – or ‘nomading around’ as a friend of mine recently described it – allows us to romanticise the demanding and sometimes mundane routines of musicians.
It is perhaps strange then, with so much admiration for the history, literature, and entertainment value of lost things, that in day-to-day life there is a common tendency to treat things that are left unfinished, or our own feelings of being lost, with harshness.
We adopt stern labels like ‘quitter’ and ‘drop-out’ – often against ourselves – and reprimand ourselves when books and other tasks are left unfinished, as though these somehow signal a weak character.
In conversation with all but our closest allies, we fear that any hints of possessing a deep-seated feeling of uncertainty will be interpreted as a sign of being unfairly dissatisfied and unjustifiably fussy about our lives. It can sometimes seem as if feeling lost is acceptable only when it is a deliberate move, done intentionally as part of a holiday.
Today, therefore, I would like to examine whether there is any way we might bridge the gap between the admiration we feel for the literary lost and the contempt we often reserve for ourselves. Losing, feeling lost, leaving things behind – these are all deeply humanising, and it may be wiser to treat them not with impatience, but with more careful consideration than our instincts usually permit.
It seems appropriate to begin with Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things. Catholics are said to pray to him for aid in the recovery of lost items, and many refer to him as the patron saint of lost souls as well. But one needn’t subscribe to any religious beliefs to appreciate that there is something extremely consoling about the idea that losing something, or being lost, was once treated with a holy status.
According to legend, Saint Anthony became the patron saint of lost and stolen things after an annotated book of psalms that he relied upon for teaching – a highly valuable item in his time – was taken by a student who later returned it in repentance after Anthony prayed for its return.
But perhaps more appropriately than this, Anthony was not unfamiliar with the feeling of being lost himself: during a voyage to Morocco when ill health forced him to turn back to his native Portugal his ship was blown off-course and Anthony found himself washed up on the shores of Sicily. Evidently making the most of the unpredictable whims of fate, he travelled from Sicily to Tuscany and then Bologna before eventually settling in Padua.
Today, Anthony is remembered for his rhetorical powers, which in itself is a reminder of the romantic sway that being lost can have over us in fiction but less so in our personal lives. When in need of a missing item, Catholics are said to chant:
Dear Saint Anthony, I pray,
Bring it back without delay
Something’s lost and can’t be found,
Please, Saint Anthony, look around.
However, as comforting as it may be to suppose that someone will help you find the keys when you have misplaced them, or that someone will tell you what career to steer yourself towards, or even that someone will offer you a suggestion for what you should do with an idle afternoon, the idea of finding a peaceful resolution – or even any resolution – to a feeling of being lost may be a misunderstanding of one unchangeable condition of human life: you may feel lost forever. The questions then becomes whether this need necessarily be a bad thing.
As well as being the patron saint of lost things, Saint Anthony is also said to be the protector of the elderly. And it seems either a strange coincidence, or a deliberate acknowledgement of this same conundrum; that the feeling of being lost may extend into old age. Perhaps without even realising it, Saint Anthony is encouraging us to see that feeling lost is not necessarily a bad thing, but rather, just another part of life.
Think for a moment of what your life would be like if you knew every day what you were expected to do and then had no choice but to go and do it. If, when you made your way towards the next year, you were never allowed to meander along and slow your pace – or even get blown off course – towards the distractions that life offers us every now and then. Life might quickly become unbearable.
Over two centuries ago, the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that bad times have a scientific value because they are occasions a good learner would not miss […] They prompt us to pause, reorient, continue doing what we always did, or change direction
– Barbie Zelizer
When you don’t have options, even desperate or less-than-ideal options, with which to decide what is and what isn’t important to you – when you feel forced to follow a rigid plan, even one of your own devising – the days can quickly start to feel suffocating and become difficult to enjoy. If you are not allowed the option of getting lost from time to time, your life may quickly start to feel as though it belongs to someone else.
Of course, it would be unrealistic to say that we can always embrace this feeling. Feeling lost can be terribly disorientating and unsettling. But I suspect that the harshness with which we treat the idea has something to do with how we suffer under it. In this, expectations and comparisons are the enemy, for when we subject ourselves to both it is easy to feel that we have come up as having failed somehow, without quite understanding why.
So, in the effort of bridging the gap between the romantic appeal of the literary lost, and our own, seemingly unjustifiable, everyday feelings of being lost, I’ve rewritten, without permission, the prayer to Saint Anthony, in order to remind me of the value of being blown off course every now and then. Keep it and remember it when your instinct judges you harshly.
Dear Saint Anthony, I say,
Lost or not, I’ll live either way.