In the terrain between stories, trust that maps do exist

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I am a framework junkie. I love the satisfaction of seeing a complex process or perspective distilled into diagrams, able to be grasped at a glance. Sure, some detail is omitted, but the best frameworks capture essence and convey key information to guide understanding and/or action. A good map is one example, or an infographic about, say, the growth in income disparity over the last decade.

I keep hearing it said that, in this time between stories, we’re wandering in unknown territory without a map. And that is how it feels much of the time. Yet, there are workable maps and frameworks that can inform both personal and cultural choices, if not direction. I’m thinking particularly of various takes on developmental psychology, like Spiral Dynamics, or Rudolph Steiner’s seven-year cycles, or Bill Plotkin’s map of the human psyche. I find it comforting to have a picture of where I’ve been and to see possible routes on my continuing quest for wholeness and belonging.

It’s been said that a single human life mirrors, developmentally, all of human history. So, toddlers have been compared to Paleolithic man, and one can imagine the adolescent’s intellectual engagement of the world as a mirror of the Enlightenment. It could be argued that, for the most part, our modern culture is stuck right there, at the Enlightenment materialist, clockwork-universe stage of understanding, beyond which we are discouraged to go.

Separation is a necessary stage of human development, as the young child realizes he is separate from his parents and again on the threshold of adulthood, when he realizes he is separating from the security of childhood. Indeed, this adolescent stage was considered so vital to the lives of the individual and the community that for all of human history, elders performed ceremonies and initiation rites to both celebrate and navigate the passage into adulthood. In our culture, this step is either largely symbolic (via religious traditions) or ignored altogether.

One consequence of the lack of initiation is the failure to imagine that there are other stages beyond separation. From dependence, we develop into independence, and the third stage — interdependence — is ignored.

Another distortion of our culture’s map is that during adolescence, the intellect is awakened, giving us a rational, cause-and-effect view of our world. Yet little is said about what lies beyond the culling discernment of intellect, or within the tangible materiality of the physical world. Dimensions other than the material are omitted from the map.

Plato saw the intellect as a charioteer guiding two horses, our sensual self and our spiritual self. Our sensual self is grounded, earthy, wild, and when out of balance, tends to Dionysian excess: sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. On the other hand, an overly strong spiritual self is airy, unfocused, ungrounded, tending to want to retreat from the harshness of the world. The role of the intellect is to balance these opposites and bring out the best of both, not to overpower, denigrate or diminish them.

In resonance with Plato, the philosopher/poet John O’Donohue speaks of the human body as contained within the soul, and acting as a threshold between earth and sky. I love the physicality of O’Donohue’s image: that each of us is a kind of axis mundi, our clay body literally connected to the earth, and our head, with its organs of sense and imagination, open to the heavens above.

Such maps can be helpful frames of reference for how a healthy individual, and by extension, society, might look, allowing us to diagnose mistaken assumptions. They may not tell us exactly where we are going or how to get there, but they do paint a picture of who we could be, if we pay attention to our inner urges towards ever greater integration and wholeness.

To stay at the ego stage required by our culture, the adolescent emphasis on meeting the world solely via intellect is exhausting and depressing. It takes tremendous energy to resist and deny the inner urge to grow, which is coded into our DNA as surely as an acorn is coded to become a great oak tree. If we step out of our culture’s program of self-centeredness and ego gratification, we are indeed in uncharted territory — or so it seems.

This is where having guides and companions is so critical. A wise teacher like John O’Donohue can remind us of the inner knowing that is common to all living creatures on this earth. He advises that, rather than start with a picture of what I believe my life ought to be, using the will as a hammer to knock it into shape, to remember instead that each of us has a unique soul signature.

“Whereas, if you work the other way, and if you believe that your soul knows the geography of your destiny, and that your soul alone has the map of your future, then you can trust this indirect and oblique side of yourself to take you where you need to go, but more importantly, to take you how you need to go.”

We are each on our own hero’s journey, shaken out of our comfortable assumptions, sent on a grand adventure into the world to wander homeless, to face dangers and overcome challenges, to conquer our fear of death, and to return with the treasure of wisdom and belonging. One life, from birth to death, can be seen as a single hero’s journey, within which nest several complete journeys happening at various stages and scales, from the individual to the interpersonal to the communal.

When I toss away the old, inaccurate map given to me by our culture and set off into the unknown, it may be necessary at first to wander without a map, if only to clear my head of expectations, goals, and preconceptions. I can be then more discerning about the maps I do reach for: maps that suggest who I am becoming, that tell me I belong here, and that show me a vast capacity to tap both my own inner wisdom and, via my senses and imagination, the guidance of the animate world around me. The maps of longer-lived human cultures than ours, along with the maps of healthy human development, form a rich framework to guide this journey.


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