I Got Lost In The Desert And Found My True Self

Deep in the wilderness, I traded my pain for knowledge.

Man alone with his thoughts in desert Sportstock | Canva

I could tell my parents thought I was going to die in the desert. They didn’t voice their concern directly when I told them, but I could see it in their faces. I’d just left my career, and a long-term relationship felt like it was ending. I was lost, and I knew I needed a change. I needed solitude. So I packed my bags and jumped on a plane. 

Five hours later, I found myself in a rental car driving toward the desert without much more than food, water, a sleeping bag, and my trusty one-person North Face tent. I drove as far from civilization as I could. I landed in a wilderness that stretched almost 3.5 million acres — 50 miles from the nearest human. I found a campsite high on a nearby mountain where I slept on the ground under the stars. 


I’d spend a week there. Each day, I’d catch the sunrise and sunset, and spend hours alone with my thoughts. I’d hike up a mountain and not see another person all day. It was the first time I was truly alone in my adult life.

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man." — Heraclitus

Amazing things can happen when you’re alone deep in nature. Thoughts become as clear as the night sky. For the first time, the absurdity of daily life set in. I had let the clock and a job consume most of my waking hours. I wouldn’t live that way anymore. What I experienced is known as the Solitude Paradox. Being alone often leads to a deeper connection with others. It’s in the solitude that reflection and self-discovery occur. It’s only then we start to understand ourselves, enhance our empathy, and obtain a depth of character that changes you at your core. 


The desert helped me see more of life’s paradoxes and showed me how they can help guide me toward the life I want to live.

Here are 10 more of life's paradoxes I learned by getting lost in the desert:

1. The Freedom Paradox

True freedom comes from discipline and restraint. We can achieve independence and control over our lives by imposing rules and structures on ourselves. I felt free in the desert, but I’d created structure. I was up before dawn and hiking to a place where I’d take in the sunset. I’d go into the mountains daily to hide from the heat and watch the sunset. I felt utterly free in my new routine.

2. The Paradox of Choice

More choices lead to frustration and decision fatigue. We think we want choice but often value simplicity and clarity more than endless options. We need less choice. The desert limited my options and removed my ability to connect to the world with my phone. I could redirect that mental energy toward deep thought and found that I was happier with far fewer choices each day.

@professorkapp When it comes to choices, sometimes less is more. #psychology #edutok ♬ original sound - Professor Kapp

RELATED: Why Having Too Many Options Makes You Less Satisfied With Your Decisions


3. The Wisdom Paradox

The more you know, the more you realize how little you know. As our knowledge and understanding grow, we become more aware of the complexities and mysteries of the world. That awareness is humbling. I became aware of nature in a way I hadn’t before. From the barren landscape of the desert to the wildflowers on nearby mountains, it revealed to me just how much I had yet to learn about the forces that had created what I observed.

4. The Technology Paradox

The more connected we are through technology and social media, the more isolated we feel. Never before have we had the ability to connect with so many people. Yet, never before have so many people felt lonely. I spent days with no technology. Yet I felt more connected to nature and those people I hold dear than I ever had before.

RELATED: 5 Dangerously Toxic Signs Social Media Has Taken Over Your Life

5. The Strength Paradox

Embracing vulnerability leads to greater strength and resilience. By acknowledging and sharing our weaknesses and fears, we foster a sense of trust and authenticity. Sharing my experiences in the desert and the feelings of helplessness that led me there gave me a sense of strength that I was missing.


6. The Happiness Paradox

Directly pursuing happiness makes it elusive. Focusing too much on personal happiness leads to doubt and comparison to others. Happiness is a byproduct of finding purpose and living a meaningful life. I went deep into nature, looking for answers to a sadness I had buried deep inside. I wasn’t seeking happiness. However, I left with a happiness that has only grown since. I don’t look for it, yet I have it.

7. The Productivity Paradox

Often, doing less can mean achieving more. We often mistake being busy for being productive. We are not wired for 8 to 10 hours of monotonous work every day. On paper, I didn’t accomplish anything during my trip. I sent no emails, made no plans, and didn’t do a single workout. Yet, in those days, I planted the seeds that bloomed into the next decade of my life. I found direction and purpose in the boredom.

8. The Comfort Paradox

We must be uncomfortable before we can. Only by challenging ourselves and facing discomfort do we expand our comfort zones. Being uncomfortable repeatedly over time grows our confidence. This trip was the first time I’ve ever traveled alone. The area I chose reached over 120 degrees during the day. It was uncomfortable at times, but it was what I needed.


RELATED: The One Change I Made To Become Fearless And Transform My Life

9. The Failure Paradox

True success often comes from failure. This concept holds a profound truth. Each failure is a lesson — a step along the road to achievement. I ended up in the desert because of my failures. I’d quit my job as a detective, was in the process of leaving my marriage, and had no idea what to do next. Not long after that trip, I’d find a new career and marry the love of my life. I succeeded because I was willing to accept, and even embrace, failing.

10. The Fear Paradox

We interpret fear as a signal to stop, but what if it’s a nudge toward what we need to do most? Our greatest fears often conceal our most significant growth opportunities. I most feared being alone and losing the status I had gained in my career. I faced both of those in the desert. Facing those fears was what I needed all along.


Final thoughts:

As I left the desert behind, I realized that maybe my parents were right in a way. I didn’t die in the desert, but an old version of me did. The man who walked out wasn’t the man who walked in. I was a bit wiser. A little closer to the answers that I went there to find. Even a touch more empathetic and patient. The desert showed me that sometimes, it’s in losing ourselves that we truly discover who we are meant to be.

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Joshua Mason is a former police detective and public safety leader turned writer. His weekly stories on Medium are dedicated to change, leadership, and life lessons.