In the Labyrinth

In his memoir Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes of a man whose plane goes down in the desert:

The hardest job I had was to force myself not to think. The pain was too much, and I was up against it too hard. I had to forget that, or I shouldn’t have had the heart to go on walking…. What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.

These words, among my favorites since I read them, resonate especially these days. They remind me of walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco the last time I was seriously sick, about fifteen years ago. The labyrinth defied my foremost defense mechanism: looking ahead. Squinting into the future and trying the plot the best route to the destination doesn’t work — the path is too circuitous, and dizziness sets in long before any progress can be made. Which is not unlike the experience of researching medical mysteries online.

Trying to estimate how far you have to go doesn’t work either. You might be standing right next to the center, but you can’t jump the track, you can only follow it. And just when you think you’ve arrived, the path inexorably bears you back to the perimeter, directly away from where you want to go. A line in the zen poem Sandokai says: “Progress is not a matter of near or far.” What kind of progress doesn’t mean moving closer to a goal?

In the labyrinth, all that makes sense is to keep your eyes on where your feet are now, step by step. Trust or faith in the path definitely makes the journey easier, but such companions can’t always be summoned, and have a way of ducking out just when things seem darkest.

Yet the fundamental truth of the path is this: just because you can’t see the future doesn’t mean there isn’t one.