I was looking at a replica of one of the earliest maps of North America not long ago and on that map, California appeared as an island. The first mention of California as an island was in the year 1510, so for the next 191 years California was rendered as an island on most maps of the Americas. It was not until 1701 that consensus was reached that California was attached to North America and not separate from it, though on maps it took another half century for California to move east and join the mainland. We’ve been talking about maps and guides, and how the earliest maps and guides in our lives, be they people or paper, have a profound effect on our lives. But there are other dimensions of maps that pertain to our lives, one of which is the evolution, the changing, of maps, necessitating new maps.
As we age, the maps and guides in our lives must necessarily change. This was brought home to me recently when my son Sam, who has always depended upon me for financial advice, made a significant fiscal decision without asking me. When he needed counsel about how to invest for retirement, I was able to provide proper guidance, or guide him to someone who could. But he rightly discerned that I lacked expertise on the real estate market in San Antonio, Texas, so he went in search of a more knowledgeable guide and didn’t even ask me first. He now has a new map. Do you remember the moment you were no longer the expert in your children’s lives?
Several years ago, I conducted the funeral of a woman whose 60-year-old daughter said to me, “With mom gone, I don’t know who to go to for advice.” Since then, I’ve watched her life collapse in upon itself because she has failed to develop her capacity to navigate life as an adult. With her mother gone, she has no other map or guide to consult. No guiding principles, no compass by which to steer. On her life’s map, California is still an island.
We see new maps because our lives have grown in complexity, our circumstances have changed, things have happened to us that didn’t happen to those who once guided us. The terrain has changed. Mountains have risen from the plains, and we need new maps to navigate the passes.
Some people find those maps in religion, but we can even outgrow that map, especially if that religion fails to grow and evolve. I know a man who has attended the same church his entire life, where he learned a set of hard and fast rules as a child, which he has clung to without deviation for over 60 years. His earliest guides taught him divorce was a sin so when his wife left him, though he was terribly lonely, he never remarried, believing he was still married in God’s eyes and that marrying again would be adulterous. He needs a new map, doesn’t he? Perhaps even a new religion?
Some people find new maps in other people. They ask themselves, “Who do I know who is where I need to be? I will ask them how they got there.” To be sure, age and experience don’t always confer wisdom. Some people are as ego-driven and unwise at 80 as they were at 15, but those who have gone before us often know things we do not. I remember when I was 36 and got my first royalty check. Boy, did I have fun. I was a kid in a candy store. Spending money right and left, Quaker simplicity be damned. Whee!
My mother said, “Don’t do that. It may not last. Life changes.”
I thought, “What does she know? She’s never written a book.” I didn’t say that, but I thought it.
But she knew. And Joan knew and put me on an allowance before I bankrupted us.
I had to find a new map. My old map said, spend it if you have it. My new map said, nothing lasts, be wise.
Still others find new maps in literature and music and the arts, which guide them to a higher, lovelier land. Time and again, I have noticed the happiest, healthy people are those who have cultivated an appreciation for beauty, who, even amidst ugliness and malice find within themselves and around them, reservoirs of loveliness that inspire and renew their inner lives.
Let me tell you a story about finding a new map, a new light to travel by: In the early years of my spiritual rebirth, back in my late teens, I thought the purpose of religion was to straighten people out. Oh, you should have known me then. I was quite the little tyrant. I suppose I had listened to one too many sermons by Jerry Falwell. I was telling this person to repent and that person to read the Bible and yet another person to go to church. And God forbid that anyone within my circle should drink a beer, be gay, have pre-marital sex, or express an interest in any religion besides the evangelical Christianity I embraced. I was in especially rare form back in those days, determined to set the whole world straight.
I must have been driving people crazy, because one morning at Quaker meeting I was approached by an elderly Friend who said, “Your religion is about how you behave, not how someone else behaves. When it is about how someone else should behave, it is not a religion, it is oppression.”
And just like that, I was handed a new map, a fresh way to navigate the world. I began thinking more about what I needed to do and less about what others should do. For what it’s worth, there is Biblical support for this. Do you know that not one of the Ten Commandments begins with the words “Make sure your neighbor doesn’t bear false witness, or lie, or covet, or murder.” They say, “You shall not lie, you shall not covet, you shall not murder.”
In our own Quaker tradition, the Quaker queries do not say, “Is your neighbor aware of their responsibility to help in the elimination of racial discrimination and prejudice? Is your neighbor concerned that our economic system sustains and enriches the life of all? They ask me if I am. Our religion is about how we behave, not how someone else behaves. So I was given a new map.
Here is the wonderful thing about new maps—they are not tucked away on a dusty shelf, hidden from view, and lost to time. They are often just within reach and sight, requiring only that we pick them up, study them carefully, and adjust our journeys accordingly.