Prone to Wander

Expectations for being right the first time are becoming very high – perhaps too high. We are told to pursue efficiency, productivity and to avoid risk through seasons and circumstances of life that are inherently messy. Limiting the scope of our ambitions and resisting the temptation to explore are often recommended strategies for success. While such approaches may enable us to play it safe and find a measure of success, the results sometimes come with an unsatisfying sense of conformity and limitation.

To be sure, there are ample rewards for conformity. Our social systems reinforce coordinated and consistent behaviors with the affirmation that we are fitting in and doing our part. Of course, that’s not all bad. The benefits are worthwhile, unless the cost is too high. If we lose ourselves in the well-established patterns of society, the personal toll can be greater than we are willing to pay.

College students certainly grapple with these issues, but so do those of us more advanced in years. The experience is recursive as the stages of life unfold. The life questions of youth simply reappear with increasing levels of complexity as the years pass.

J.R.R. Tolkien in his classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, brings to life many characters struggling with questions of identity and purpose. Among them is Strider, introduced to the reader as a wandering ranger, who eventually emerges to fulfill his destiny as Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor. The wizard, Gandalf, describes Strider to the hobbit hero, Frodo, in the form of an introductory message that includes a poem.

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes of fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

Not all those who wander are lost.

These words have echoed in my mind for many years. It’s a reminder that my life’s journey has included periods of wandering and I see the same in many others. Such periods of life are not free from anxiety, but through such times I have become more resistant to asking simple questions and accepting even simpler answers. More of my time is spent challenging my underlying assumptions and moving from narrow interpretive frameworks to broader landscapes of understanding.

The benefits of wandering are ample. Wanderers tend to be patient with themselves, others and the world. Most of us who wander realize our reach in the world is limited and our time in the world brief. A balance emerges between an intense ambition for creativity, innovation, and change, alongside the caretaking responsibility for the relational well-being of those surrounding us. A modesty arises, informed by the realization that in our families, communities, and organizations, we work for our successors. Wandering brings a greater awareness that we are always building a bridge to the future that will never be complete and will be changed after our journeys end. Therefore, we care a bit less about how exactly that bridge is built and more about why we are building it in the first place.

As we wander we recognize wider patterns reminding us civility matters in human relationships.  As we seek to ensure and promote the dignity of others, our own well-being is enhanced. While not losing our own sense of values, we see the perspective of others who wander as well. Civil discourse is the language pattern of the wanderer, desperate for voices of reason and honesty. We find guidance and hope through the wanderings of others. We are enriched by the community of wanderers, who collectively seek dialogue on important questions without easy answers.

Wandering is a strenuous task that requires stiff determination. It’s much easier to stop and simply conform to the expectations of society. The reward for wandering is almost always intrinsic. Our companions on the journey give us courage and strength. Those who will help us bear the weight of our questions. Some are living and some live on in their writings and recordings. The deep and abiding questions of the past will invariably be the questions of the future.

I love being a wanderer, though on occasion I have wondered if I might be lost. Instead, I have found that wandering has enabled me to encounter so many different people, places, and ideas that I am never far from home.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



7 responses to Prone to Wander

Carol Wilson says:

I pray regularly for you. Personally I find comfort in life knowing that God is in control behind the scenes!

Dan DeCook says:

Someone once told me ‘A picture may be worth a thousand words, but well-chosen words will take you were pictures never can.’ Thanks, Mark, for the wisdom in your words and inspiring more freedom ‘to wander’ purposefully!

Dan DeCook says:

Meant where

Fred Hopke says:

Oh! Darn you Mark, now I have to think about my place in life and how and why I arrived here. What might I have given up and what have I gained? Where do I go in my next phase? I was happy in my bubble of ignorance, floating along. Wandering without reflection, now the curtain has been pulled back requiring me to reflect, so yeah, darn you Mark.

PS. I can’t wait for the next installment, and thank you.

George Brown says:

Mark, your comments remind me of Barbara Brown Taylor’s “The Practice of Getting Lost,” in her book AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD; A GEOGRAPHY OF FAITH (HarperOne, 2009). When I was growing up, Sunday afternoons we would pile into the family car and go for a ride. The big question at the beginning of this Sunday ritual ride was, “Which way shall we go?” It always seemed like an adventure when we would head off in a different direction, on some new, untraveled (by us at least) road. Taylor cites the French word “flaneur,” which describes “someone who goes for a walk with no particular destination in mind …” (p. 81)

T. Todd Masman says:

George, Thanks for your reference to the work of Brown-Taylor. She is such an eloquent writer. I now need to go find An Altar in the World and read more about those flaneurs among us!

Bob Sutton says:

I agree with Mark about the value of wandering both mentally and geographically but there is a danger. Wandering can be a demanding mistress with no respect for time. So before you set out, leaving your stability behind, set a very finite “wandering timetable” and when your timetable has elapsed get yourself back to a stable, goal oriented life.