It was the summer of 2018 and I was wheeling my way along the familiar Twin Bridges loop around Tumalo, Oregon. I was over halfway done with the loop and things were going splendidly. The weather was great, I had good rest the night before, and another two hours before I needed to be home.
The road began to pitch downward and to the right toward the Deschutes River bridge. In an instant, I went from the blissful experience of bike riding to skidding along the ground and chewing gravel, my tires facing skyward and a thin blood trail in my wake. A second before, I was adjusting my hand position on my handlebars and, at that moment, my front tire hit a bulge in the road I wasn’t prepared for. Eight years of riding practically crash-free, and there I was on the side of the road, riding my upgraded full-carbon Pinarello FP Quatrro, now half broken with acres of road rash across my right side body. Scars that are with me even now.
As I was scanning the road, I didn’t have that bulge mapped out in my head, so I didn’t account for it. I’d ridden about 25 miles up to that point with no issues—and thousands of miles for years before that went smoothly, too—gracefully avoiding known and identified potholes and imperfections. But this one threw me a right hook I was totally blind to.
We can operate for a long time on a set of rules—our worldview—without a hitch. We use it as a map to navigate the uncertain terrain of our lives. And, like a physical map that describes the landscape, our psychological map which describes behavior is always going to be an incomplete representation of the thing in its totality. But even low-resolution maps can be useful.
Consider the minimum necessary instructions to guide someone new to town to your home.
I might instruct the newcomer, take highway 97 to exit 216. Take a left at the light, and once you hit the first roundabout, take a right and my house is third on the left. Two sentences worth of description is enough to guide this person to where they need to go. But to describe with extreme detail every last bit of information the traveler might come across could fill volumes and volumes of text. For the contemplative author, even a single intersection could generate enough material to inspire a novel’s worth of detail.
I don’t include extra details because all that matters to the driver is arriving at my house. And two sentences is enough to generate a map that he could follow and accomplish the thing that matters to him.
These “low resolution” descriptions are necessary for us to navigate through life. We can never take into account every last detail when making our decisions and pursuing things that matter to us. In fact, our brains are wired to filter out an extreme amount of information and present to us those things that matter in the moment.
Roughly 95% of sensory data is filtered through the unconscious and the 5% that shows up in our conscious awareness is based on those things that matter to use, those things we find meaningful. Consider how your own vision works.
A 360° camera, like the ones they use for Google Streetview, can provide focus in every direction all at once. But your eyeballs can only focus on a very, very small portion of the full picture. Even small deviations from the focal point from your eye are received in your brain as out of focus and blurry. This is the periphery.
Most of life is in the periphery so we have to have a system that tells us what to focus on. That system determines our aim, and our aim in life determines what we focus on and perceive.
Ever notice that when you’re thinking about buying a particular car, you start to see that car everywhere on the road? It’s like that.
But when that aim hasn’t been properly updated to account for an anomaly in our environment, that’s when we can take a wallop, when our front tire hits a bump in the road that we did not account for in our mental maps of the world. This is another way to think of moral injury as I discussed in the previous post.
For a more concrete example, consider the case of a betrayal.
Perhaps you were once in a committed relationship with someone and you believed you knew that person, and yourself, well enough to navigate that relationship such that it was on a positive trajectory. People are infinitely complex so we have to have maps of one another—incomplete but mostly sufficient tools that allow us to navigate—and those areas not fully mapped out are overlaid with trust. It’s trust that allows us to take each other’s complexity for granted.
Trust allows us to live in a psychological landscape composed mostly of the periphery.
But one day, out of the blue, you find out that your partner has betrayed your trust in one way or another. Your “map” of that person and your interaction with that person has just been presented with a bulge in the road, a moral anomaly. It can absolutely do us in because not only do we have to update who we understand that person to be, but we have to apply the same reevaluation to ourselves.
Was I such a sucker that I didn’t see this coming? Was I far more naive than I thought? Was my aim off? Did I sin (an archery term which derived from having your aim off)?
What’s required is a rebuilding of that map to reorient your aims.
In more traditional cultures, rites of passage served as the means to update a child’s “map” to an adult’s “map.” But in our culture, the military is our closest, imperfect analog. Rites of passage are one of the best guards against the ravages of what can result from moral injury, but sadly, most of us were never fully initiated into the realities of the world’s potential for darkness.
The initiation is the moral injury itself, uncontrolled chaos and disintegration of our psychological structures. And how we recover from such a breakdown will have lasting effects on our biology. This impact could either ultimately serve to build us up or send us toward a mental health diagnosis.
Our maps will always need updating and they need not be in the context of a betrayal or other trauma (education and book reading, for example, are ways to update our maps in a controlled environment), but if we’re feeling so broken down that there’s no way to be able to rebuild, where on earth do we start?
When I limped my way back to my home after the bike wreck, I poured a hot bath to wash out the flakes of pavement from my butt, ankle, and elbow. It was about the most pain I’d ever been in up to that point, but the rinse was necessary if I was to heal properly.
See you next time.