One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

One step forward.  Two steps back.

That is what I remind myself this week, as I log in many hours on the couch, laid low by a nasty respiratory virus.  It has stopped me in my tracks, forcing me to push aside my work and wait, surrendering to my body and its needs.  Still, my mind leaps ahead, struggling with the delay, with my lack of progress.  I am not a good patient.

One step forward.  Two steps back.  This is our journey through life.  My time on the couch reinforces this bit of knowledge.  In my rush through daily life I had forgotten it again.  But as I linger on the sofa, I am forced to remember it.

This bit of wisdom was illustrated beautifully on our last trip to Paris.  We took the train to Chartres to visit its Gothic masterpiece.  Pushing open the heavy oak cathedral doors, we stepped into the shadows and were whisked back to the Middle Ages.  Dozens of flickering candles and magnificent stained glass windows scattered shards of light and color across the walls and floor.  We were dwarfed by the soaring majesty of its vaulted dome.  As we wandered around the perimeter of the nave, we found a space where the chairs had been cleared away to reveal a labyrinth inlaid in stone on the church floor.  Intrigued, my husband, son and I followed the path, falling into step behind two barefoot pilgrims, their feet moving in an odd ritualized dance.  One step forward.  Two steps back. Jubilant smiles flooded their faces with light and hope. Intrigued, we kept walking.

Unlike a maze with several alternative routes, the labyrinth has just one path, leading inevitably towards a goal at the center—in this case an engraved copper plaque, which was melted down during the French Revolution.   It pictured a six-petaled rose, the symbol of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty.  In the spirit of adventure, we followed the path as it wound through 4 quadrants, each with 7 turns.  As we walked, my mind skittered from thought to thought and then slowed.  I felt like a child again, playing a game, lost in the moment.  My son, who obediently followed the rules, moved in step behind the pilgrims, his eyes fixed on the path, a look of intense concentration on his face.   Even my husband, who is usually in a rush, lingered along the 666-foot path, called “Le Chemin de Jerusalemor Road to Jerusalem, symbolizing the belief that walking the labyrinth was akin to making a sacred pilgrimage.

One step forward and two steps back.  I didn’t share the pilgrim’s faith or their religion.  But still, I followed the path, looping back and charging ahead, so unlike the arrow-straight highways and train lines, which I am familiar with.  The pilgrims’ odd dance went against the grain of my American upbringing and way of thinking–that human life and progress are linear, based on a straight progression from birth to death, from rags to riches, from oblivion to fame.  But as I grow older, I know the ancients are right.

The pilgrims’ odd dance illustrates a truth about life—that it is a circuitous route with blind alleys, double backs, and moments of confusion when we feel like we’re traveling in circles.   Progress is never linear.  It’s a series of false starts and even failure before eventual success.

Perhaps it is enough to simply recognize that we are all walking the labyrinth.  With patience and time, the answers to our questions and worries will come.  Only then, can we make sense of the roadblocks and detours.  It might take years of blindly stumbling one step forward and two steps back as we reach the goals we have set for ourselves.  For me, I have set myself with the goal-of staring down the blank page or staring through the lens of my camera and summoning my courage to reveal little bits of light, of truth.  With patience and tenacity, I’ll stumble through the darkness and find my way.

The same as true for you, I am sure of it.  Someday our paths will be as clear as the one inscribed on the church floor.  And when that day happens, we’ll look back and know the journey was worth it.  This is what we must believe, no matter what our religious beliefs.   We have to have faith that we will understand some day, just like the pilgrims who walked the path and found meaning in the journey, not just the destination.


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