Drawing your own maps part 1

Click below to listen to an episode of Exchange with Neil McKenty (Driving With Your Mate)

Maps…

Once I was hosting a radio phone-in program when the question was, ‘How do you get on with your mate driving in the car?’ Calls were a riot. Most of the callers, especially the women, recalled incidents when their husband got lost. The reaction was invariably the same. First the husband denied he was lost; the he refused to stop the car and ask for directions; finally in a fit of pique, he angrily declined to look at the map.

That program got me thinking about maps. Of course, if you’re lost its stupid not to look at a map and figure out where you are. But suppose you didn’t have a map. Or something worse, you had the wrong map. Imagine, for instance, you live in Montreal and you are motoring to Boston. Everything’s fine until you arrive in Beantown. Then the whole trip begins to unravel. You can’t find your hotel, you can’t even find the name of the street your hotel is on. You pore over your map. You can’t find a single name or reference point that makes any sense. You continue to drive around aimlessly, bewildered, growing more anxious and angry by the minute, totally frustrated. Finally, you spot a policeman. You stop and show him your map. He looks at you quizzically and says it’s no wonder you’re lost. You’ve been driving frantically around Boston. But you’re trying to follow a map of Detroit. You have the wrong map.

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Cartoon of Neil McKenty and his talkshow

Isn’t that how many people go through life following the wrong map? And if that’s the case (and experience suggest it is) then is it any wonder that so many of us are anxious, bewildered, angry frustrated and ultimately lost? Is it surprising that we experience a chronic inner dis-ease, that we are not comfortable in our skin and that we expend enormous energy trying to disguise this condition from the outside world?

Of course, we are now talking about an interior map, a map that relates to the landscape of our own psyche, the topography of our innermost soul. So where did we get this defective, inaccurate map that has led us down so many blind alleys, cul-de-sacs and roads that went nowhere? In my case the map I followed for many years goes back to my boyhood. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, except the map was drawn by other people. From as long as I can remember I was trying to live up to the expectations of other people: my parents, my priest, my teachers and, to some extent, the community in which I lived.

Trying to live up to the expectations of others never works because (in your own mind at least) whatever you do, however much succeed, it is never enough. The bar is continually being raised. What this leads to is not a genuine sense of accomplishment but an oppressive sense of failure. We can never do enough. And it’s not far from feeling that we are failures to feeling that we are unlikable. Not just that others don’t like us but, fundamentally, we don’t like ourselves.

This is a recipe for inner dis-ease. And disguising that dis-ease from others and even from ourselves becomes our objective. We desperately try to project an image that all is well, we can manage, we are a success (as we well may be), we have a great social life and scads of friends. And if these external accomplishments do not anaesthetize the inner pain for long (which they don’t) well some of us try a quicker method, chemicals of some sort. A double martini or a snort of coke will deaden our dis-ease a lot faster than making a successful speech or writing an acclaimed article. But whether it’s alcohol or drugs or success we are all, in a sense, addict, trying to fill a spiritual hole with a material reality.

Which brings us back to maps. At the core of the problem is an instinctive sense that we are not being true to ourselves, that we are not living out of our own natural bent, not, in the words of Joseph Campbell, ”following our bliss”. Instead our lives are still governed by external expectations, by maps drawn by other people. To be specific, think of the tortuous journey of a man who really wants to be a writer but instead has become a priest. Or a woman who wants to be an artist and finds herself doing a doctorate in bioethics because that’s what she thought her father, an eminent doctor, wanted her to do. I think the word hypocrite is relevant here, not in a moral sense but in the root from the Greek, hypocrite meaning ”actor”. It’s a dreadful burden to go through life being an actor, following the wrong map.

How does one turn this situation around? How does a person develop his or her own map for the journey? Not easily. Not by any more external band-aids or success stories. The outer journey (with the wrong map) must be replace by the inner journey using the map that enables us to become the person God intended us to be. But how do we move from outer accomplishments (which like drug require stronger doses) to an interior journey that deals with our dis-ease in a fundamental and permanent manner ?

This is a movement from disliking ourselves to liking ourselves, in my opinion the most fundamental spiritual transformation imaginable. I think the first step is a total revulsion at the unreality of the way we have been living expressed perhaps in a cry from our inner depths,” I just want to be real”. My own experience is that a crisis of some sort may be required to get us to this existential honesty, something along the lines described by the American Jungian therapist, James Hollis, as the ”swamplands of the soul”. These include loss, depression, grief, loneliness and betrayal.

Some of us, at any rate, must hit what AA calls ”an emotional bottom” wherein we realize we are powerless, that our lives have become unmanageable and we must reach out for help. It is in this ”bottom” that I believe we take the first decisive step in beginning to draw our own map. It is a marvellous paradox that when we become vulnerable we also become able to grow from the inside. In this sense, God does indeed write straight with crooked lines. Or as the Canadian therapist, Marian Woodman, puts it, ” God comes through the wound. ”

Part 2 continued tomorrow

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