I was out riding around Hood River, Oregon for what had initially shaped up to be a gorgeous fall outing. The leaves were turning and the views of the orchards in the valley were hard to beat. I was cruising along Elder Road, the ridge that borders the city to the east when my pavement turned to wet dirt and gravel.
Riding ridges has every potential to make for a great route, but a gravel bike my machine was not. Regardless of the road’s texture, I pressed forward anyway in hopes that the road would once again turn to a more accommodating surface. Besides, the map on my phone showed that the road ahead looked the same as the road behind as determined by the thickness of its white and black outline.
After another stubborn 15 minutes, it was clear this road was not what I thought it was. It began to veer away from town and into logging territory. This was no place for a road bike ride to continue.
Covered in mud and rain splatter, I finally came to my senses and turned around to find a better route, making note to never come back this way on this type of bike.
I wasn’t willing to accept the fact that my map did not match my territory, and I paid a price. My maps app had steered me well for the vast majority of its use, but at last, I ran into a situation where it no longer served me. It didn’t mean the map was wrong all along, but that it needed to be augmented when I was faced with this new anomaly of a logging road. It may also have meant that I needed to invest in a bike whose tires were a touch more rugged so I could effortlessly navigate the gnarliness of the River Gorge.
It’s a humbling experience to encounter a situation that proves your moral framework was incomplete. We find solace in our present understanding; when we come to realize how limited it is, we’d much prefer the good ol’ days when we were young, and our most significant concerns were whether or not we got up early enough to watch Saturday morning cartoons. (Anyone else have to settle for Yu-gi-oh when they accidentally slept through the earlier airing of Pokémon?).
But living out the old understanding isn’t a choice after our initiation into a complex world of black, white, and many, many shades of grey in between. It’s a humiliating acceptance, and the moment of that initiation may not have even been a result of our own actions. It may have been thrust upon us by an unfaithful partner, a combat experience, or a lost job. To quote Captain Jean-Luc Picard, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”
Or it may well have been us making a mistake we never thought we could make. In some sense, it doesn’t matter; it matters how we take responsibility thereafter to update ourselves to have a better understanding of the structure of this world and how we fit in.
Accepting that your worldview is incomplete—that our aim was off in some way—and taking responsibility for the holes in the map is the only way out of that pit.
We correct these holes by putting our story into words, physically writing those things out, or conversing with someone in a meaningful way. Maybe that’s professional therapy. Maybe it’s sharing our deeper emotional experiences with our partner that we haven’t previously revealed. Or maybe it’s writing a book, a blog, a short journal entry, or even engaging in something artistic to express what words cannot.
The process is uncomfortable because it means admitting that we’re insufficient. But there is untold utility in being able to forthright identify our insufficiencies. It’s the first step to a positive trajectory away from those insufficiencies and toward our fuller potential.
All of us have places in our territorial maps that don’t provide us with enough detail to navigate properly, and if we’re stubbornly holding on to our older editions in order to chart our course through new anomalies, we’re going to stay a victim to our moral injury.
Our past hurt becomes our present reality and we are a slave to it, and the thing chaining us to that past is our inability to accept what it was, forgive what’s been said and done, and the incomplete moral overlay we’re still trying to shoehorn into a situation where it simply doesn’t fit.
Left to its devices, our inability to update can get our bodies stuck in what the psychiatrists might label as “PTSD.” But that’ll be a topic for a future post.
Unhelpfully, sometimes “PTSD” diagnoses may come with the qualifier of “complex.” It’s not good news to hear that your problem is “complex” as it tends to add fog to the journey onwards.
If it seems like you’re stuck in a deep fog about your story, step one in that journey is to articulate to the best of your ability through writing and speech the description of what happened in the most truthful manner possible.
Were you really all to blame? Could it be that what happened was a result of what was on someone else’s heart, not yours? Did you do your best given the circumstances? Maybe you were naive. That’s okay. How can you update yourself in a way that benefits you and your community moving ahead? What portion of your old map do you need to sacrifice to update it?
If you’ve been wronged, we’re not trying to find ways to balance the scales per se; the Hebrew Bible has this idea that “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” and what that means is that human affairs are too complex for human effort to truly balance the scales. But what we can do is describe our pain and how we can take responsibility for our recovery thereafter.
Taking responsibility isn’t the same thing as blaming and shaming. Neither blame nor shame can share space with healing. If those voices surface as you’re putting words to your story, let that be an indication that the new map is not quite complete.
If there are competing voices in your head, if they are not on the side of you that wants to see you flourish, you are under no obligation to listen to what they say.
However, if we are willing to be attentive to the one voice of our consciousness that is challenging us in helpful ways—especially when it’s uncomfortable—one thing we’ll find it says is that there are three magic words that need to be said, perhaps again and again: “I forgive you.”
We’ll talk more about that next time. See you then.