Spirit, Learning and Life

Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.

Life's Labyrinth

by Linda Tiessen-Wiebe

PHOTOGRAPHS SPILLED OUT in front of me: the Pacific Ocean, tall redwoods, Grace Cathedral, Golden Gate Bridge. Last November I spent a week in San Francisco. There is something thrilling and displacing about going away, especially if you don’t travel much.

Image by Bev Patterson.

Trying to organize my pictures into a theme reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. He writes that traveling can be understood as taking a journey into the unknown, where you encounter people and places that evoke thoughts and images. We can travel as a tourist or a pilgrim. A tourist seeks to maximize their trip experiences; a pilgrim searches, is met by guides, faces difficulties, and brings back home something of value. As I sat looking over my pictures, I got the sense that I had been on both a trip and a journey.

Pilgrims are often reluctant to begin. My insurance company employer had asked me to attend a course in San Francisco. While I looked forward to the course, I was anxious about being uprooted. Days before I left, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a few years. He was talking about his work in mediation between the local Palestinian and Israeli communities. Just the fact they were working together seemed evidence of good work, but he was frustrated because a speaker they had tried to bring over had cancelled. I realized my friend was my first Guardian. According to Campbell, this is someone we encounter on our journey that guides or warns us. In my friend’s comments I recognized my own penchant for clear and big results over the nuance of God’s Spirit blowing the seeds of faithful action to unknown fertile spots. This preference for control was behind my anxiety about leaving home because I didn’t know how I would respond to the unknown. This Guardian was suggesting that I let trust instead of fear be my guide.

As I sat looking over my pictures, I got the sense that I had been on both a trip and a journey.

Unlike pilgrims, tourists can’t wait to get there. Anywhere. When I arrived in San Francisco a few days before the course, I immediately immersed myself in the sights and sounds. In a two-day frenzy, my husband Cal and I walked on the Embarcadero, went on an all-day tour of Sonoma vineyards, explored the redwoods in Muir Woods and cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge. The sights and sounds of a city with the population of our entire province was a bit intoxicating. We were staying right downtown in a metropolis that doesn’t really sleep. There is something exciting about this but also a bit creepy. Like the dancing mannequins we saw in a department store window: they were actually mime artists...selling shoes. A bit of a Siren song, hinting that an overload of experience can distract us from what’s really there.

Looking at a picture of the two of us with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, I suddenly remembered the hawk I’d seen. We cycled up the Marin headlands, a 40-minute zig-zag ascent just beyond the bridge. As we climbed, I happened to look up and see a red-tailed hawk. It tipped its wings momentarily so that I saw the top of its russet red tail. He seemed so calm even as he was balancing strong winds to stay up, circling familiar ground but gradually moving in a direction. The hawk’s spiral echoed the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral we had walked earlier, and both were a welcome counterpoint to the busyness of the previous two days.

The labyrinth is designed so that you walk in a zig-zag path that eventually traverses the whole circle. As I walked I found myself thinking about conversations I’d had so far, with our ironic wine-valley tour guide or the thoughtful woman photographer in the redwood forest. I had listening for how to move these conversations deeper, but it eluded me, as if I was missing something vital. The labyrinth suggested that even when things seem to take a detour, you eventually reach your home in God. Or maybe that the entire path is part of God.

The next day I started my course on Business Intelligence, which offered new ways for companies to access its own data. On its own terms it was interesting and useful for my work. But it was the conversations during lunch that I really enjoyed. I found myself asking my classmates whether they’d ever thought of the ethics of having access to all this information. This started a discussion on what part the individual plays in large systems or companies. One person quoted Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” I loved the idea that a comic book could teach people about morality. Another classmate talked about trying to find ways to help their company do right by stewarding, not exploiting personal information.

Another conversation turned to the U.S. election, about the elation of Obama’s victory, and the graciousness of McCain’s concession speech. One guy said Obama inspired him to be a better person. At the end of one lunch someone else said, to no one in general: “good discussion.” In these conversations I felt like I had been exactly where I was supposed to be. Was it not ironic that being focused in one place was more satisfying than seeing the sights?
Was it not ironic that being focused in one place was more satisfying than seeing the sights?

Now that I had entered the journey, I met the Dragon. To Campbell’s understanding, this is an obstacle that challenges the pilgrim, making him or her doubt their purpose. One night, as we were walking back to the hotel after seeing a movie, I heard a particularly vocal panhandler up ahead. During the week I’d noticed that the more I gave them change, the more aggressive they became. So when I heard this guy, I turned away as I walked by. I didn’t notice I had started walking faster, until the guy yelled out to me: “You’d be a better woman if you’d slow down!” I was disturbed by his comment, but kept on walking. It was only later that I realized this street person completely nailed how I rush to judgement to avoid reality. In the process I miss what’s really going on. He may have been “rushing judgement” on demanding that I give him change, but my own rash judgement prevented a human exchange between us. I depersonalized us both. Like the rushing around of doing touristy things, my rash judgement made me lose touch with reality. Exactly the opposite of that circling hawk seeing the big picture.

Putting the finishing touches on my photo album I saw the theme of my journey emerging with a startling clarity. From serene images to rude awakening, every encounter I had that week echoed the need to slow down to attend to what is before me. This was the boon, the gift given me to bring back home. It seemed a bit obvious, not really news to me. But I needed to go away to see this truth more clearly. And it will take time to let this Word work into my life. I hope I might be able to live more reflectively wherever I am. The saying “hindsight is 20/20” suggests that with foreknowledge we can avoid difficulty. But I think walking the labyrinth is a more apt metaphor for our lives. It takes forever to get to the middle, but we gain a fuller appreciation for the whole circle. In the end, the journey is about how we have been changed by our encounters along the way.

Redwoods in Muir Woods