Get lost? Chance would be a fine thing

·3 min read

A travel company called Black Tomato, in return for a significant sum of money, will drop you in the middle of you know not where, and leave you there. The product is called Get Lost and is surely more evidence that we’ve, well, lost our way.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a daft idea. As a matter of fact, it quite appeals to me. I’m used to feeling psychologically lost – that wouldn’t be much of a holiday – but I’m very rarely physically, geographically lost. And annoying, and even frightening, as it can be, I miss this sensation. I believe it is good for the soul. “Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go,” is a line in a Beatles song. How about: “Oh, that magic feeling, where the bloody hell am I?”

It’s been an awfully long time since I asked myself that question without the means to answer it straight away. It was dusk in an ominously quiet forest somewhere – I’m still not quite sure where – in mid Wales, more than 30 years ago. It was raining steadily, and we had nowhere to stay. Chancing upon a stream, with bleak logic, my mate and I reasoned that the stream had to lead to a river that had to lead to civilisation. We slipped, slid, sloshed and cursed our way down that stream until we saw a light at the end of this confounded tunnel of trees. Leaving wet footprints on the carpet of an inn, we slumped there in relief. We had lost ourselves, but found ourselves. If you never get lost, you never get to go through the process of seeking your bearings, or the joy of finding them.

If you have a mobile phone, it’s now almost impossible to be truly lost. It will almost always tell you not only where you are but, crucially, in which direction you’re facing. In the UK, equipped with the Ordnance Survey app, I can know where I am in quite extravagant detail. There will be no need to look around me – really look – at the earth and the sky, and think – really think – about what data I have in my head to figure out my place in the world. Some crucial, hard-wired, mental capacity is lying dormant; this can’t be good for us.

It reminds me of something a rather brilliant psychologist once said to me. He mused that in days of yore most humans had only one concern: to have enough food and shelter for their families to survive another day. If they did, they were happy; if they didn’t, they weren’t. In the context of this existential daily struggle there wasn’t a lot of time for emotional crises, the like of which I was bringing to this clinician’s consulting room on a weekly basis. You know, stuff like: What am I for? Why do I crave approval? How can I stop feeling like a failure? Blah blah blah. And, tellingly, I’m quite sure that at some juncture I wailed to him: “Where am I?” The answer was Harley St, but that wasn’t what I meant.

As everyone knows, thanks to the first law of thermodynamics: “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.” Some psychologist or neurologist or neuroscientist, or whatever the relevant discipline is, must have looked into what happens when the brain chemistry of physical “lostness” is stirred around a bit. Perhaps “lostness”, like energy, can’t be created or destroyed; it needs to manifest itself somewhere. It certainly seems that the more we know where our feet are planted, the less we know which way is up. We have our bearings, but we’re losing our marbles.

• Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist

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