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The map is not the territory


Careful readers of last week’s letter noticed an error. The number of deaths from flu is not 1 in 70. It’s 1.8 in 100,000. To be fair, I disclaimed my own innumeracy, however, I was not trying to test you. I just goofed up. My advice? Always greet long lists of numbers or statistics with a critical eye. (And never rely on yourself to be your own proofreader, even if you do it for a living.)

So ~

I’ve been thinking all week about the axiom “the map is not the territory.” First coined by Alfred Korzybiski in his early 20th century work on general semantics, a system of linguistic philosophy, I find it a remarkably meditative phrase. Much has been written on this in the past 100 years and, I suspect that Korzybski’s work may now be regarded differently by scholars in his field (maybe not; I simply don’t know because I haven’t studied it). Still, this artful notion is widely applicable. Here’s what Korzybiski reasoned:

  1. A map is not the territory.

  2. A map does not represent all of a territory.

  3. A map is self-reflexive in the sense that an 'ideal' map would include a map of the map, etc., indefinitely.

Other great writers have entertained us with explorations of this notion that the map is not the territory, e.g., Jorge Luis Borge in his one-paragraph short story written in 1946, or Lewis Carroll of Alice In Wonderland fame in his Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, first published in 1893, well before Korzybski’s time.

In his work, Korzybski went on to apply this logic to daily life and language:

  1. A word is not what it represents.

  2. A word does not represent all of the 'facts,' etc.

  3. Language is self-reflexive in the sense that in language we can speak about language.

So, let us extend this logic to feelings or emotions you may have – reactions in real time to events in real time that may overwhelm you, again, in real time, convincing you that your whole existence is caught up in (a self-imposed and temporal) reality.

  1. A feeling is not what it represents.

  2. A feeling does not represent all of the ‘facts,’ etc.

  3. Feelings are self-reflexive in the sense that we have feelings about our feelings, and feelings about that, ad infinitum.

This is a notion worthy of your contemplation, I believe. All of our feelings, not to mention the words we use to express or explain or rationalize them, are not the whole of our reality. Are they valid? Yes. Are they useful? Yes, they certainly can be. Do they feel actual and real when we’re having them? Of course they do.

But they are not the whole – of your life, of your experience, of you. You and the life you live are complicated, unique, nuanced and ever-evolving. Consider that and allow it. Strive. but allow..,then strive, again.

Inviting you to take time to open the space between stimulus and response this week.

Peace and love to you.


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