All of us hold in our minds a shifting map of our life.
An ordinary, modern map renders three dimensions into two and confidently fields outlines right to the edge of the paper. An online map, like Google Earth, just keeps on going forever.
But our internal life maps are more complex, and simpler. They map the actions of our lives, not just the physical locations. They include your first kiss, or the smell of oranges, or the death of your father. Like the maps of old the edges might portray great swathes of nothingness. Here be the dragons of our future, the demons of our past.*
The young carry their map lightly. Their past has not yet begun to weigh upon them and their future-map, full of possibility and paths, beckons with sultry intent. Although the options seem endless, perhaps disturbingly so, in fact many young people are blissfully unaware that the paths before them are well trodden and signposted. A middle-class Australian kid from a well-heeled suburb is unlikely to end up living in a mud hut in Ghana. It might happen but that kid is far more likely to end up a middle class adult, living in a well-heeled suburb.
The recent birth of the heir to the English throne, Prince George, reminded us uncomfortably of how fixed and rigid his own future-map already is, and how weighty the map of his past. At least his past provides a foundation upon which he can build a life – too many others are born carrying a past which will pull them down like stones in the pocket of a drowning man. Aboriginal kids, I heard a Koorie woman say, must drag behind them 200 years of colonization.
As we grow up and into middle age, into the middle of our maps, the possibilities narrow although the way forward is often much clearer. Some people need their future-map to be detailed and firm. “He only ever wanted to be a doctor.” Others prefer to live with the multiple possibilities of the blank page, flitting from option to option. My sense is that these special people are fewer than we imagine.
As we age the map of our past grows heavier. It carries our regrets, our hopes, our mistakes and triumphs. It trails along behind us whether we notice it or not. The immediate past is clearly outlined in full colour but the further back we go the more the map begins to a seem a little muddy. Siblings often dispute the veracity of the other person’s childhood map.
“Aunty lived with us for months. She was a horror.”
“No, she only stayed for ten days. And she was always nice to me.”
Beyond the boundaries of our birth, in the maplands of parents and ancestors, the borders of our own map of the self are blurrier still. Ancestral homelands may be sketched in, or landscapes populated with half-remembered family stories. It is possible for the boundaries of the past to shift alarmingly. News of a previously unknown half-sibling, or an anomalous ancestor, can entirely change the tenor of the past-map and we are forced to look at it again, to look at ourselves again, with fresh eyes.
Once our futures are drawn in – the mortgage signed, the career sturdily built or barely nailed together, the marriage, the children – the lines become harder to erase and redraw. Some of the sea and tree changers manage to do it, or the mid-life divorcees whose future map has finally becomes so colourless as to no longer be bearable. Others fantasise about changing the map but have too little courage or too much honour to redraw the lines.
But it can be done. What would you do if you weren’t afraid? If you had no constraints? Are your fears genuine monsters or tamable beasts?
Even seemingly impossible mountains can be scaled – it might just take more time and effort than you are willing to commit. That’s fine, but at least acknowledge that to yourself and make a conscious decision to stay on the path you are on.
If you fail to make a firm decision about your future, if you let the river of your life wash you along, if you don’t actually DO something then that is, in itself, making a decision: you’ve decided to leave things just as they are. So stop complaining about it. Stop wishing your life away. Stop pretending that it’s all down to luck.
Many older people, moving all too quickly towards the edge of their future-map – nearly all the white space filled with obligations and decisions already made – look back to expand the boundaries of their past. Is that why genealogy is so popular? If I can no longer meaningfully change my future map, at least I can use my seventeenth century ancestors to expand and colour in the outer boundaries of my past.
Our maps are never static. Fall out with a friend, or a lover, and the bright lines left behind on each others maps become tarnished with sorrow and pain. Win a new job, and watch the opportunities bloom.
Our maps shift and move like water.
We might know in broad terms where the river of our life will run, but no-one can predict the ripples and splashes, the floods, or the droughts. It is tempting to try but the crystal ball won’t work. We simply have to map as we go and, where we can, include in our lives something of enough value to look back upon fondly.
* No old maps actually say ‘Here be Dragons.’ Read more in The Atlantic.
Map images sourced at Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.