Never underestimate the power of a good bumper sticker

They're not paying me for this. I just like it.

Somewhere in southern Ontario, there is a black jeep whose bumper proudly proclaims, “Not all those who wander are lost.” I know this because I was behind it one day. I turned to my friend beside me and asked, “What do you think that means?” She said something witty about not following them.

It happened that my boss had mumbled those words at work in the previous week, and I didn’t know where they had come from. (1) “No,” I said, “I think there’s more to it than that.

Aphorisms, proverbs, maxims… call them what you will, the world is full of nuggets of wisdom that endure. I have been collecting them, and inside the front cover of my favorite hardbound notebook, there is a list titled Wisdom of the Sages. It starts with “Don’t Panic,”(2) and includes entries from Tolkien, Rumi, and the Rolling Stones.

“Not all those who wander are lost,” made the list AND is scrawled on the wall of my living room.

Why? Why, after reading 5000 books, did I write this particular sentence on my wall in pen? What about it spoke to me enough that I wanted to be reminded every time I pass through my hallway? What am I looking for in this reassurance?

The Ring of Truth

Grant me a diversion to the concept of truth. The standards by which we judge claims about the world are often described as correspondence (how well the claim measures up to our observations) and coherence (how well the claim fits in with other things that we also hold to be true). To this pairing, I want to add the idea of comfort – we hold on to ideas that help shore up our self-concept, things we want to be true about the world, or things that are reassuring about parts we don’t really understand.

I would like to believe that I’m not just wandering in the wilderness, that there is a method to my madness, and that the apparently aimless nature of my life is legitimate. In short, I want to believe that I might not be lost.

Another take on it all

I recognize that it was prophesy, and that the person referred to in it was the rightful heir to the throne. I recognize that it doesn’t say, “All those who wander are not lost.” Or even that what it does say is, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Maybe most are. The odds are pretty good that I’m among them. I realize that my life could, in fact, be meaningless. But, in the words of a more traditional bard, “That way madness lies.” The nihilists and absurdists don’t have a lot to offer me about getting up in the morning and getting stuff done. Tolkien does. Which is why it doesn’t say, “God is dead,” on my wall.

One of the possibilities that opens up in my particular worldview is that it is all sacred text. If we are all manifestations of The One, then we all have access to deep knowledge. We are also only partially aware, so each bit of information needs validation, consideration, and parameters. George Lucas knew something, and I heard it and remembered. I have repeated Yoda’s advice to Luke when my children were about to jump off of things that were just a little higher than was comfortable. There is a point at which balking is significantly more dangerous than going through with things. You must commit or you will sprain your (metaphorical) ankle.

However, I have also had to realize that I cannot control outcomes. There is, indeed, a place for trying in my life. I used to hold myself to a standard of perfection, and it was well on its way to destroying me. Sometimes I blame the kids’ songs I grew up with that contained nuggets like, “You can do most anything that means enough to you.”(3) This has been kindly replaced by one of the modern bards:

“You can’t always get what you want

… but if you try, sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

It is a little longer than most of the pithy sayings that wind up on bumper stickers, greeting cards, and bad wall art. But it has the ring of comfort, and the advantage of being subtle enough to give me correspondence AND coherence. Too bad it’s kind of wishy washy. Oh well. “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” (4)

1. Yes, you may mock me now. I remedied that. In my defense, I offer two words: Elven Poetry.

2. Douglas Adams. I once wrote this on the top of an exam that I was writing. Next to it, the marker wrote “Thank you.”

3. Sharon, Lois, and Bram

4. Steven Wright

3 responses to “Never underestimate the power of a good bumper sticker”

  1. I’ve always had a problem with “Do or do not, there is no try”.

    It always feels like the supposition of “try & fail” (based on my read of the scene this quotation comes from). If you fail, then you only tried. It’s damned hard to succeed at anything without failure.

    Then again, based on the additional characterization of Yoda in the (ahem) prequels that Lucas gave him, Yoda’s a jackass.

  2. I have only recently found “Do or do not, there is no try.” empowering. Before I felt it was a statement of the disease of perfectionism. I heard, “Do it, do it right.”

    I have replaced it with “There are things worth doing imperfectly.” paraphrased from Marshall Rosenberg.

    I choose to “do” even with mistakes.