Friday, April 1, 2016
Lines in the sand
When I was growing up, I had an aunt and uncle who operated a motel In Ocean Park, Washington. They were only a couple of hours away from our home, so we spent many long weekends there. Over a large dune from their house was a large sandy beach. Clam-digging was an early (often VERY EARLY!) morning chore; fresh home-made clam chowder in the afternoon was the reward! We flew kites and built sand-castles. Typical beach fun! There was very little swimming, on the other hand, and the Pacific Ocean that far north was pretty cold! It was at Auntie Florence and Uncle Eric's that I learned that lines I drew in the sand would not survive the next change of tides. I remember, too, the old maps and atlases that were in their bookshelves in the attic room where I often slept. Many of them pre-dated World War II, some by quite a bit. And the borders didn't always match those on the pull-down maps in my elementary school classrooms. There were even whole countries that were missing from my school maps, or had different names. As I got older, of course, I saw such changes happening as a matter of course. Many African and South American countries, for example, shed their colonial names for something more "indigenous". Many newly-named Asian countries emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkan wars. The "lines in the sand" that are our maps are no more permanently fixed than were my drawings or writing on the beach.
"A map is not the territory it represents," wrote scientist/philosopher Alfred Korzybski in the 1930's, "But, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness."* "Similar structure" . . . and "useful". But not precise; not "true". The map represents only. It occurs to me that the same can be asserted for many of our "truth claims", whether scientific, philosophical or religious. They all "represent" some greater reality, but they are only pointers. Where we often fail is in our tendency to confuse "map" with "territory", turning the pointers into the reality.
This tendency is wonderfully illustrated in the map above. It is SO different from the maps of the world that we often see! First, it is "upside down" (which begs the question of WHO decided which was "right-side up"?). Second, it is a different "projection" (the Gall-Peters projection) than the more usual Mercator depiction, a projection that may depict more accurately the relative sizes of land/sea masses. Yet this map was controversial in the late 20th century because of its political implications. People did not want to give up their "lines in the sand" as depicted on the Mercator map.**
There is a spiritual discipline implied here, I think. Every so often, it is good to sit back and re-evaluate our "maps." Are we equating our "lines in the sand" with the reality they can only depict? Can they withstand a change of tides? The following poem by Jane Hirschfield pushes ME in this regard:
I wash my face with cold water—
not for discipline,
nor the icy, awakening slap,
but to practice
to make the unwanted wanted.
(from Given Sugar, Given Salt, HarperCollins, 2001)
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Map%E2%80%93territory_relation** Another, animated, critique of the Mercator projection floated through my Facebook feed earlier this week: Maps That Prove You Don't Really Know Earth. Equally fun, or challenging, are the 27 Pictures That Will Change The Way You Look At The World.