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“The map is not the territory”

This was something one of my professors used to say when we were talking about the limits of theory, “The map is not the territory.”

One day he took it a step further. He held up a map of the United States that he carries around in his dayplanner, a map that shows the state boundaries. Then he held up one that showed the United States divided by time zones.

His point was that the map can only describe part of what is true about the territory and different maps can say different things. But they are not true in the same way that the territory itself is True.

This is important to remember when we’re wondering why in the heck this person in our life is not doing what they’re supposed to do. It is particularly important when we’re looking at a child and trying to understand why they’re not fitting into a particular slot or why they’re not responding to a particular parenting theory. And it is also particularly important when we are feeling angry with ourselves for not being as “normal” as we expect ourselves to be and as some self-help books promise us we can be if we just get it together.

Listen, maps and books are very helpful and I am pro things that help. Getting educated about our child’s development or our own development can go a long, long way to assisting us in making good, realistic, appropriate choices but still — the map is not the territory and the books don’t describe our lives or our children’s lives.

You — every bit of you, all of your experiences — are too complex and wonderful to be fully described by anyone’s two-dimensional map. Use those maps to get insight into the parts that need insight but remember to pull back and view the whole landscape when it comes to understanding.

4 Comments

  1. wow, yeah, that is worth a lot of chewing over.

    Reply
  2. I look forward to hearing more about your thoughts on the subject.

    Reply
  3. I like that metaphor a lot.

    Reply

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