While living in New Zealand, I completed several solo multi-day hikes where I was out in the bush for nearly a month in all. From the outset, I was as cautious and prepared as one could be. All was going amazingly! And while that preparation never stopped, by my fourth hike I became complacent with my navigation. I accidentally followed a haphazard series of winding animal trails and wound up in the middle of the forest. With no foot traffic from hikers to guide me back, I anxiously searched for the true trail for 45 minutes. Rookie mistake, I know. But I was lucky to come out unharmed.
My process to get back on the right hiking path has so many parallels to how I’ve course-corrected wayward times in my own life. We all experience “come to Jesus” moments from time to time — you know, those moments when it hits you hard that you’re not living in right relationship with God, yourself, or others. Such as when a recent Facebook photo reveals you’ve neglected to eat well for way too long. Or when you completely forget your girlfriend’s birthday after you swore your demanding new job wouldn’t compromise the relationship. Or when you’re late to work because you partied too hard on a weeknight… again.
Here are some steps that might help you find your way back to center — the insights parallel my own woodsy scare with life’s ups and downs.
1. Realize and acknowledge you are lost
You cannot return to the right way of living until you realize that you have lost your way. At first, it can be difficult to see that you’re derailed. Getting lost often occurs gradually through a series of consistent relationships or choices. For instance, I did not know I was on the wrong path until I realized I hadn’t seen trail markers for a while. Yes, I was still walking down a path that felt familiar because it was surrounded by trees, but it wasn’t the correct one.
2. Don’t waste time berating yourself
Lost after more than six hours of hiking with a heavy pack, I was running on low and frustrated at myself. I didn’t know if I would make it to the intended campsite before dark. But I couldn’t dwell on feeling shameful or discouraged. If I took too much time for a pity party I might have had to sleep in the forest rather than the camp. Same goes for when you realize you’re off-course. Instead of being angry that you got to that low-point, try to accept where you’re at and what you must do to resolve it — starting now.
3. Pause to identify where you went wrong
Once you realize you’ve lost your way, the instinct can be to frantically run around searching for the right way. We go for quick fixes (buying gym memberships we won’t use, applying to jobs we would never take) and tell ourselves that any step is a good step. This is not true. Not every action is a productive one.
Instead, you must carefully retrace the series of micro-decisions and influences that led you here. Pray for insight to see where you went astray. Then you must methodically counteract each departure point.
This can take a long time. On my hike, I found my way back to the trail by slowly and systematically combing the area within a circumference centered on where I stopped. I fought my initial desire to race back towards what was “probably” the way I came.
Rest where you are for a while if you have to. Just don’t make your situation worse by hastily “moving forward” in the wrong direction.
4. Look to other people for guidance
I was lost in the middle of the woods where every tree looked the same. The proper trail I sought was narrow and rugged. No visible break in the foliage denoted its presence, so a fellow hiker would have been my most obvious guide to the trail.
In the same way, I encourage you to look to other people for the guidance you need. Get help from a trusted friend, colleague, or faith community member who seems to have mastered what you’re struggling with.
Beware, though: sometimes our closest connections share or even feed our problems. A fellow hiker who is also lost won’t help you out of the woods, and your equally struggling friends won’t help you change your life.
Fortunately, there are options if you don’t personally know anyone who can help you. The priests and lay ministers at a parish are literally trained for exactly these kinds of conversations — dropping in to ask for help would be a welcome addition to their day. That’s the whole reason they’re doing what they’re doing. Give them a break from making copies or an excuse to miss a staff meeting — they’ll thank you for it.
If opening up to someone you don’t know seems like a stretch, try the self-help library section, searching online stories from people who have faced the same situation, or a podcast to hear how others have overcome similar roadbumps in life.
5. Get right with the people in your life
I was hiking by myself when I got lost, but had I been with someone else, I would have needed to reckon with how my mistake impacted them. I would have had to say, “I’m sorry.”
When getting off the right path hurts someone else, then a big part of moving forward is restoring that relationship. You won’t be able to feel at home with yourself, or others, or with God until you face up to what you’ve done and ask for forgiveness. The only way forward is not around or over or under it. You have to square up and go through it.
It takes a lot of courage to ask for forgiveness. If someone has been hurt by something you’ve done, know that you’re doing the right thing. Speaking the truth about what happened and admitting that want to make things right again can only help. The truth, as they say, will set you free.
The sacrament of confession is an effective means to return to center, especially in your relationship with God. Even if it’s been a long time (or never) since you’ve spoken to a priest in confession, they know how to help you through the process. The benefit here is that confession not only clears the slate, it actually makes you stronger.
(Again, this is one area of a priest’s work that they love the most. You are not being a bother. Think of them as forest rangers on the lookout for lost hikers — they know how to get you back on the right path.)
6. Pay close attention going forward
From now on, you must pay better attention not to make the same mistakes. Once you’ve stepped on the wrong path, it’s much easier to go in that direction again, so it will take work to re-train your habits and perceptions and judgments.
It could be slow going as you fight the factors in your life that got you to where you don’t want to be. But you must keep your eyes open to avoid those same traps. When I’m hiking, I now make sure to check for trailblazes every five minutes or so.
7. Use your experience to help others get back on track
Once you’re re-centered, you can use your experience to help others facing a similar challenge. What you’ve experienced helps you relate and better understand their struggle. It can also mean you notice red flags others do not, which gives you an opportunity to intervene before it’s too late. For instance, a few weeks after I got lost I was able to help another injured and disoriented hiker.
We all lose our way in life from time to time. What matters most is what we learn from getting lost and intentionally working to correct our course. By taking the steps above we can get back to a life aligned with our values — which allows us to live richly and boldly, confident in God’s love for us. The more we sharpen our values and define the habits that are good for us, the better we can navigate trying situations without losing ourselves.