When I was young, and working at a large company in New York, I had a friend who, like me, was a computer programmer. This was in the early 1980s, when office walls were beige, the floors were a dull linoleum and few people had windows to the outside world. One day he brought a large poster of a rainbow into his office as an experiment. He found that when he had visitors their eyes constantly shifted to the bright, natural colors on the poster. He eventually removed it because people could not look at him when they were talking. It was too distracting for visitors to his office. He believed that office buildings were starving people of natural color and other natural stimuli.
This same friend was also a World War II vet and an engineer and knew much more about a great many things than I did. One of the most important things I learned from him was that people all think our brains function the same way, but they don’t. People are aware of differences in intelligence and experience, but there are many other differences. We don’t have the same ability to remember things, for example. Some people can recall events, as a film, in vivid detail, motion, and color. Others have no visual recall at all. Their recall isn’t in pictures, they might be able to recall the story, but not “see” any part of the film play back in their heads. Some can recall conversations and music as if they were recorded. Others can remember what the conversation was about, but not the exact words.
It is interesting that the machinery of our memories can be so vastly different, yet somehow, we can still communicate a past event to each other in a way that it seems that we are recalling something in the same physical way. The fact that we do communicate in such a way that we can build complicated things like towers, bridges and airplanes must mean that we can communicate some parts of reality to each other even if we don’t all come to the same place through the same thought process.
I have thought about that story of the rainbow poster often over the years. Just as our differences are important, the things that are similar are important, too. The Poster Experiment is anecdotal, so do we all share this need for natural things and if so, why do we find rest in nature? Was it because our senses were made to experience the natural world long before man made things? Some think it has to do with evolution. Others believe it must come from God because evolution is a false science. A third group believes science and God are compatible because creation stories are not literal (not science) and therefore do not contradict science.
It seems that our senses were made to experience the natural world long before man made things. Perhaps, like the Poster Experiment, we go to nature to escape the sight of unnatural stone and metal of towns and cities. My engineering friend did not spend his time staring at the poster. He put it behind him so as not to distract him from his work. So, perhaps we seek out nature as a way to rest from our obligations.
And why do people choose some types of vacation places over others? Is it conditioning? Is it a personal choice? A bit of both, perhaps? Even if we all find rest in nature, it does not seem that we find it in the same places. Some people prefer the beach and others prefer the mountains. The mountain people find it in the quiet of the woods and hills. The air is fresh on the mountains. It is air with no people in it, no decay of rotting garbage that can be experienced on a hot summer’s day in the city. And then there is the quietness of the mountains. It’s a quiet that rings in your ears until your mind settles down. I love the woods and mountains for those reasons but given a choice I prefer the beach. I find rest in the sight and sound and taste and feel of the waves – an all-encompassing embrace. The constant motion calms me.
Whether finding rest in nature is universal or not, if we want to get there then we need a map.
Maps offer clarity about the world around us. They tell us where we are, where we have been, and where we are going. They tell us what things are and where they belong. We place tokens of the things we value in their proper places in our maps. Having said all that in this context of map and beach, it might seem strange to add that our maps can become so detailed and so important to us that we can mistake a map for reality.
“How can that be?” you ask. “Who could mistake the beach for a road map?”
We make maps of everything in our heads and sometimes we get so caught up in those maps, our “virtual worlds”, our “Sim Cities” as it were, that we mistake them for reality. We have come to prefer the virtual to the real world. Aren’t these virtual spaces cleaner and prettier than our real world? Everything is under control in our mapped-out worlds from our virtual homes and communities to our daily routines. Our pathway to eternity seems laid out in a clear pattern. We all do it. Our brains are built to excel at map making and world building. The problem comes when reality sneaks into our carefully managed dreams and goes through our stuff as if it were a thief in the night stealing everything of value and leaving us lost and confused. We thought our maps were accurate and secure, and therefore our future was certain. After the thief leaves, we may not be sure where we are or even who we are.
A simple example of this is like when a poor swimmer, who has come to rely on a floating device to get him from one wave to the next, suddenly finds himself out in deep water without it. He is now without sufficient means to swim on his own. He begins to drown because he handicapped himself by believing the man-made floating device would always be available to him. His mind map, which told him the water was safe with the floating device, no longer fits reality. If he survives the ordeal, he must adjust his map. There are things he can do to avoid the same problem. He can decide to never go near the water again or he can learn how to swim without a floating device. We adapt our map to our new view of reality.
There is another danger with maps. Sometimes, we find our maps so overwritten and/or contradictory to what we experience in reality that we can’t make sense of them. Depression and anxiety overwhelm us because we have become reliant on a faulty map and mistaken it for reality. A sudden death of a loved one or a betrayal of a friend can do this. We hope that the mind maps we have (or can find) for dealing with tragedy are strong and reliable enough to pull us out of the dark and empty place we find ourselves in.
So, it is important to compare our maps – the big ones and the little ones – with reality. Indeed, it is important to remember there is a reality beyond our maps. Every once in a while, we need to toss the map and engage in that greater part of the universe that we tend to push out of our minds. We need to remind ourselves that there is more to reality than the busyness of our daily lives. This is as true for our vacation trips as well as for our ultimate destination beyond death.