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Bewilderment


At the end of a long winter, not just of season but of soul, I found myself on a plane to Costa Rica, a country that epitomizes eternal summer. There, in a dense rainforest that crept up the slopes of a sleeping volcano, I wandered for miles through dense thickets of life bursting into every available space. Layers of lush, green growth formed a sanctuary for myriad creatures darting between shadows and leaves, humming with purpose around me. The forest pulsed with life and color. I hardly knew where to look, or what to pay attention to.


In every way, I was completely and utterly bewildered.


Bewilderment, often associated with confusion or being lost, traces its etymological roots to the 1680s—a combination of be, meaning ‘thoroughly,’ and wilder, meaning ‘to lead astray or lure into the wilds.’ Bewilderment is the experience of being drawn deep into the wilderness, left to navigate your own way out. There’s an inherent tension between the positive and negative aspects of bewilderment, a tension reflected in the ‘and’ of bewilderment’s synonyms: astonishment and perplexity, bafflement and disorientation, surprise and discombobulation, enchantment and mystification.


Another linguistic cousin of bewilderment, awe, was historically defined as 'terror' in the face of mystery. Modern-day awe describes a sense of wonder, but both bewilderment and awe, now and in days of old, contain inherent shadows—because both are reactions to encountering the ambiguous, nebulous unknown that sprawls beyond what we can understand or even fully perceive. Bewilderment is the language of the soul, speaking to and through an untamed, unknown universe that simultaneously beckons and frightens. When we experience bewilderment, the spell of the ordinary is broken, and we feel ourselves awakened.


And often, just as quickly, bewilderment’s shadow arrives. An undefinable, too-big sense that touches upon a peculiar feeling of both largeness and emptiness. A feeling that, at times, might make us yearn—particularly when we feel too much of bewilderment’s shadow—to retreat once more into the familiar.


Nowhere did I feel bewilderment more acutely in Costa Rica than when I came upon a sloth. It wasn’t the languid smile she wore or her unhurried, deliberate movements as she worked her way along a branch not two feet from my head. It wasn’t that the sloth had lived a life so devoid of the urge to hurry that the ends of her fur were green with moss, as though she were part-tree. It wasn’t even the way her fingers picked through each leaf in passing, tracing the sunlit veins and nuzzling their edges with her cheeks.


It was that when the sloth met my gaze with a slow-motion turn of her head, she wore a look of utter bewilderment.


In that shared moment, everything I could say about the sloth, her golden-eyed gaze and her life's journey through the intricate forest, was reflected back to me. For an instant, I was fully awake, eyes wide as a child's, captivated by the sloth's world. Leaves and vines tumbled from understory to canopy in a thousand riotous shades of green. Flowers unfurled in a rainbow of petaled silk skirts that perfumed the rain with sweet sugar musk. Insects buzzed and trilled and marched with ceaseless industry; and birds—over five hundred species in Arenal alone—composed a veritable symphony: flutes, whistles, reedy oboes, long-bowed violins, the hiss and click of percussion, bellowing horns and trumpets. They threw their whole bodies into their songs, beaks wide and bright-hued feathers splayed like paint across the sky. All the while, raindrops drummed over leaves, over ground, over cloud and sky, an immutable rhythm.


But bewilderment is fleeting. The moment passed. The sloth continued her deliberate climb and I resumed my journey through the rainforest. Yet, the encounter left an indelible mark—a yearning not to retreat to the familiar, but for more: more reverence, more puzzlement, more understanding of the complexity of nature both within and without. Costa Rica's rainforests teemed not only with life but also with decay: towering trees strung with vines and ferns that devoured sunlight and rain and dank, dark soil; animals and insects engaged in an endless cycle of predator and prey. Confronting such vibrant life also means facing the shadow of loss. And encountering another creature in the wild invites us to confront our own loss—the loss that occurs when, in the bewildered gaze of something else, you become the Other.


It is easy to fall into bewilderment while traveling. In those new, wild spaces, our eyes are opened just a little bit wider, our senses enlarged to take in the mystery of what has existed alongside, yet outside of, the familiarity of our day-to-day experience. The challenge lies in recovering and maintaining a sense of bewilderment in the ordinary. The true shadow of bewilderment may well be its own loss. That it goes away and when it does, each sun-kissed leaf blends into the thousands around it, rustling unseen in the invisible wind until the next beam of sunlight slants just-so


How do we keep touching our own bewilderment? How do we hold it? How do we study our wonder and all that we do not know like a sloth studies each leaf it touches? How do we look at ourselves wide-eyed and wearing so gentle a smile, seeing ourselves as a small piece in a vast and bewildering world, as something curious and strange and perplexing and altogether entirely mysterious?


The answer, it seems, lies in the word itself:


First, be—recalling that the root of be means 'thoroughly.' Be thoroughly present, thoroughly attentive, thoroughly whole-bodied in your surroundings, regardless of whether you are in a rainforest, a sunny beach, a city street, a busy coffee shop, or a fluorescent-lit office. The details of place don't matter. The be-ing is what’s important.


Then, be wild—thoroughly untamed, following the whim and whimsy of seeking and discovering. Greeting largeness and emptiness, hunger and nourishment, the familiar and the unknown, all alike: with a tender insistence upon seeing the world, and yourself, as whole.


Now: be wilder. Lead yourself astray. Marvel at the view from the edge of the map, the boundary at the edge of yourself, where there is no path—where you must make the path by walking.


It is not the shadow of confusion or lostness looming over bewilderment that keeps us from touching it; nor does it await our arrival in the rare experience of some wild, unfamiliar place. Bewilderment is a profound invitation to journey into our own wilderness, and then puzzle our way out—or wend our way deeper. An invitation to navigate the universe, to bask in its mysteries, and to embrace its ephemeral nature. Living a creative life demands repeatedly opening our senses to bewilderment—not only to touch it, not only embrace it, but to embody it wholly.


In the end, bewilderment beckons you not only to gaze at the world but to become a part of it, holding each moment with the wide-eyed curiosity of a child and the age-old wisdom of one who trusts that true understanding often begins with acknowledging what we do not yet know. To cultivate bewilderment is to embrace the full spectrum of lived experience—the joy of discovery, the mystery of not knowing, and the courage that comes from venturing into the wilderness of your own soul.

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