Lately I have been absorbed with planning an extended adventure this coming summer. I enjoy the process of charting out where I want to go, where to stay and what I might want to do. But this morning I heard a great quote that reminded me of something that applies to not only our vacations, but our lives as well. That quote is by a philosopher named Alfred Korzybski who said, “The map is not the territory.” In other words, my “trip plan” is not the adventure any more than a menu is the meal. And while it might appear obvious that our “models” of situations, circumstances or reality are not the real thing—many of us unconsciously confuse the two and then forget we are forgetting! Remembering why it matters could clear up a lot of misunderstandings and disappointment in our world.
For example, if you read my last blog post you know that I wrote about being “ghosted” by a longtime friend. From the comments and conversations I’ve had since that post appeared, I am not alone. Lots of us have lost touch or had fallings-out with former friends that we never completely understood. The problem is, most of our story about what happened isn’t necessarily the whole truth. Our stories are the maps we created to help us make sense of the situation. And again, the map is not the territory.
Like most of us, I wish that wasn’t so. I prefer to believe that I know exactly what happened with my former friend as much as I like to believe I know what others think (at least some of the time!) But again, the map is not the territory. And even if those others tell me what they are thinking, my interpretation of what they tell me is often just a “map” that leads me to a certain conclusion.
The biggest problem with our inaccurate map association is that we do it all-the-time and completely forget we are doing it. Any opinion we have of circumstances, places, events, people, etc. is our interpretation of them—not necessarily the truth. In fact, everything we think is “true”, is probably just a map of the reality we believe. Again, I don’t like that anymore than most people. But until we are willing to analyze where and what and how we came to believe something, then it is likely just another piece of the map we’ve created to believe the world we think we know.
Of course we have a lot of help with designing those internal maps in the first place. Our parents raised us believing in the maps they found most useful and passed them on to us. I’m reminded of that story about cooking a pot-roast.
A young woman was fixing a pot roast for the first time for her new spouse. She found a baking pan and before sticking it in the pan she cut off both ends. When asked by her spouse why she was cutting off the ends before cooking the roast she simply responded, “That’s the way mom always did it and it was always delicious.” The next time the spouse was over at Mom’s house she asked her about the strange custom of cutting the ends off the roast before cooking it. The only explanation that Mom had was that grandma had always done it with her roast and it turned out wonderful. So of course, the curious young couple had to ask grandma about the practice the next time they saw her. With a chuckle, grandma just said, “Oh I did that because I never had a pan big enough for a roast. So, I just cut off the ends to make it fit.”
Our maps don’t just come from our parents. They come from our schools, our churches, and our friends as well as our government and corporate advertisers. All those others are happy to share their maps with us and as long as we don’t question them, we get along mostly. But if we do run into a problem, then chances are very good that it is because we are responding to a map rather than reality. And if our map is so ingrained in us that we can’t see that there might be more going on that what we believe or can even see, then there could be a big conflict.
Even more of a problem is how we often equate our identities with our maps. Any time we define ourselves by a singular or limited view, then we are believing the map is the territory. Don’t believe me? Do you identify as a conservative or a liberal? How about Christian, Jew or atheist? Do you think of yourself as introverted or extroverted? A mom? A professional? A single? A LGBTQ? All of those labels might list an aspect of you, but they too are not the complete and whole you. And the descriptions (and/or judgements) we make about others boil down to the same thing.
This is one good explanation of why there is so much division in our world today. Most of us are convinced our version of reality (our map) is the right one and everyone else’s is either incomplete or flat out wrong. Meanwhile, those with a different map are thinking the same about us. Unless and until we are willing to question our maps and realize they are just a part of the equation, things likely won’t change. After all, if we won’t—how can we expect anyone else to?
So, I’m not about to give up making my travel plans. I’m having too much fun imagining where we will be staying and different activities we will include. But I’m also aware that the day-to-day, moment-by-moment experiences I will have when I am on the trip will be far more complex than my anticipation. Plus, want to be open and flexible as things change. And guess what? I also want to be available and accepting of the people I encounter without pigeon-holing them into my judgements. And because my “map” is not reality, there is a very good chance that what it will look like and what I will experience will only loosely resemble my pre-planning.
When you think about it, it’s not different than how so many of us anticipate the future. Some look with fear and others with eagerness or a hundred other emotions. Some see loving humans occupying the planet and others see scary people out to hurt them. But in the end the stories we anticipate are just map filters we consistently/routinely use to view the world. In the end, those maps may or may not be the reality we will actually experience. Perhaps the SMART perspective is to remember that a map is not the territory, any more than shadows on a cave wall are reality.