I have always loved maps. When I was younger, my family would take long road trips, and (anytime I didn’t have my nose in a book) I would sit in the back seat with the big travel atlas open on my lap. Seeing the world laid out in grid lines was both comforting and exhilarating. For me, owning a map was like flying. I could see the big picture, chart a course for anywhere, and with the entire continent on one page, nothing seemed too far away.
Of course, reality is never exactly like the map.
This summer, our family and another took a road trip in a twelve-passenger van. (It was amazing, but you can see why careful planning would be important.) Today, of course, I have Google Maps, and if an atlas makes you feel like a superhero, Google maps makes you feel like a god. Riding high on this power, one day we decided to alter our original plan and backtrack from the Black Hills to the Badlands. The kids really wanted to go, so Google Maps and I chose a route that ran along the southern edge of the National Park (good views! I thought) and that wouldn’t be too much drive time (it’s not far! I thought).
We started to drive. Across a few dirt roads and onto a state highway. Through a small town and then out of that town onto a gravel road. A gravel road that stretched for fifty desolate miles through a Native American reservation where next no one lived and absolutely no one drove. We were alone. With no cell service. On an unpaved road. In the literal middle of nowhere in South Dakota. God forbid someone in the back of that van have to pee. (Someone did.) I gripped the wheel and drove on into the bright blue sky of God-knows-where, and I felt incredibly small in a world that was so much larger than it looked on the map.
“We’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.”
“We spend our lives learning many things, only to discover (again and again) that most of what we’ve learned is either wrong or irrelevant. A big part of our mind can handle this; a smaller, deeper part cannot. And it’s that smaller part that matters more, because that part of our mind is who we really are (whether we like it or not).”
― Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past
In a world where every mile has been mapped, where a satellite can find you anywhere and you carry the sum of human knowledge in a device that fits in your hand, it’s so easy to feel that we’re the masters of the universe. We walk around with an unearned confidence, making plans and outlining truth as if we can line up the whole universe and have it all come out right.
We cling to our laws (both scientific and political), to our economic systems, to our theologies as if they are the solid ground that keeps us safe.
We hold up a map and say, “This is the world.” But of course, it isn’t. It’s just our best attempt to draw it.
It seemed, in the 1930s, that the whole course of humanity was at stake. As it very often does today. Too many people wanted to find an easy answer to complicated questions. It was a dangerous time to be human. To feel or to think or to care.
–Matt Haig, How to Stop Time,
It feels like building a system of rules or sticking close to a well-known map would be safe, but in reality, it holds a terrible danger. Because in order to make any system, any map, we simplify the world, and simplifying the world automatically makes us wrong. It’s not that our facts are inaccurate; it’s that they’re inadequate.
Systems fall short because of complexity. The world is vast and intricately detailed. Doctors can study anatomy until they’ve mapped every cell and DNA strand, and still the system is so complex that the body will do things they don’t expect and can’t explain. That’s just inside one physical human body. Should we get started on ecosystems, on solar systems, on human behavior? There is too much to know, too much to understand for our brains to hold it all in place, and every description we make falls short in one way or another (or in millions of ways at once).
Systems fall short because of change. The world is not static, and humans especially are always in flux. Is it true that there are patterns and cycles and predictable cause and effect relationships? Yes! It’s also true that patterns break, people pass away, sometimes whole species disappear, the earth shifts, rocks fall, lava flows, and nothing is what it was before. We can describe what we’ve seen and act according to what we reasonably predict, but sometimes, many times, we will be wrong.
Systems fall short because of mystery. Just outside of everything we know lies the vast realm of what we don’t know. There are very real parts of our world that can’t be experienced with the senses. You may not want to believe that, but to deny that some things are beyond your ability to measure and explain, you will have to ignore centuries of experience and wisdom.
“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Believe me, I feel all the reasons for not wanting to admit how little we know and control.
Staying open to being wrong is terrifying. We all want to feel that we are standing on certainty, that we know what is right and what is true and what we are supposed to do. When we can’t have that, where do we stand?
Staying open to being wrong is humiliating. I like to think of myself as intelligent. I like to feel that I’m wiser and more discerning than most. If admitting I’m wrong wounds my ego, living in a constant awareness of my inadequacy completely deflates it. I’m not a fan of that feeling.
Staying open to being wrong is exhausting. I finished a book this year which took more than a year to conceive, research, and write. By the time I had finished, hundreds of hours had gone into it, along with so much of my mind and heart. Then an editor read it and pointed out the ways it fell short, the areas that needed rearranged, reconsidered, rewritten. It was disheartening to contemplate beginning again, the number of hours left to work, the distance yet to go before I finished. And yet, if I didn’t do the work, I’d be left with a shoddy book.
It would be so much easier to cling to my current pile of knowledge and accomplishments and refuse to budge. So what if my pile is partially garbage? It’s still tempting to say “No! I’m the king of this pile of garbage. It smells awful, but at least I rule here.”
Or I can swallow my fear, put my ego aside, and muster the strength to climb down off of my pile of garbage and build again, build better than before.
“may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young”
–e e cummings
Listen, I know that swimming in a vast sea of the unknown isn’t possible forever. I know that we all need somewhere we can rest. When I say we should build, I mean it. Build theories, build philosophies, build systems, build laws, build plans, build ideas. Build a boat and let it carry you. Walk around on the deck you’ve constructed and be happy there. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve built solid ground.
It is possible to live happily and productively in the tension between knowledge and uncertainty. We can make our peace with being incomplete. We can assert our beliefs strongly and still admit when we are wrong. We can make beautiful plans and still alter them or abandon them at need. We can make maps and still crumple them up when the world shifts.
““Okay, so maybe there are miracles,” she admitted. “The problem is
that we need too many of them. It’s not a workable system.”
“No, I like it. A system of miracles. It’s the best description
of the universe I’ve heard yet. But you’re wrong about one thing. It
“So we just sit around and wait for the next miracle?”
“No,” he said. “We work hard, like your father said. We also rest. And
play. We live.”
I’m a logical girl, and I like systems more than most people. But maps are no substitute for the world. Laws are no substitute for justice. Theology is no substitute for God. Plans are no substitute for life.
I don’t want to sit on my leaky raft clinging to the notion that it’s solid ground. I want to work with you to build a better ship. It doesn’t have to be very big; it just needs enough space for us to live. Then we can sail the unknown together.
“Something is happening, here, tonight. I feel it.”
“As do I. But I don’t know what it is.”
“You mean you have no name for it,” she corrected him. “We both cannot help but know what this is. We grow. We become.”
Wintrow found himself smiling into the night. “We become what?” he asked of her.
She turned to face him, the chiseled planes of her wooden face catching the reflected gleam of the distant lights. She smiled up at him, lips parting to reveal her perfect teeth. “We become us,” she said simply. “Us, as we were meant to be.”
–Robin Hobb, Ship of Magic
3 thoughts on “Off the Map”
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I agree. When I travel with my parents I typically like to prepare a full itinerary including all the things we could do. In reality we won’t have time for everything so we pair things back, and even neglect some things. It’s nice to see all the options but we always change the plans.
Yes. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is the balance between good planning and being flexible to let plans go. It’s not easy!
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