Navigating in a world without maps

We live in a time where the connective tissue of life has been ruptured by a virus. Before Covid 19 came to town we navigated through life with our own maps. We thought we were far beyond the primitive cartography of the middle ages when vast parts of the world remained uncharted. These ancient maps indicated the fearful unknown with images of dragons, lions or sea monsters. Now Google Earth can map almost every square inch of the world. Technology has fostered our feeling of being in control of our geography. At least in some parts of the world. We lived up until a few weeks ago with an organising narrative that the world was knowable. We may not have liked the political, social or existential dimensions of this world but we thought we knew our stories about the world around us. Stories are the explanatory maps we use to give ourselves the illusion of understanding reality. What is often forgotten is that our stories are themselves composed out of visceral reactions to our (often bad)experiences. How we interpret these experiences becomes immutable truth quicker than any viral infection. Humans crave explanatory maps however partial and subjective. In many parts of the world we have seen a rising popularity in dualistic stories about ‘us’ vs ‘them’, the insider outsider binary. These narratives appear to bring clarity to complexity and answers to confusion. They are also tissue thin distortions of reality.

What we now know is that our maps were not the territory. What we now know is that there were still unknown and uncharted dragons out there with a lethal ability to disrupt us from top to bottom. Biology has upended narrative. Of course we always knew that we couldn’t REALLY control our reality but bespoke tech and playlists certainly helped dull the ugly truth. The sea of narrative as entertainment we were swimming in was just part of our panacea of self protective and self soothing behaviour. This includes addictions, distractions, The Real Housewives of New York, The Bachelor and any other delivery system of distraction we may choose to click upon.

In some parts of the world we have consumed and created stories at a faster rate than at any time in history. When I look at my Amazon Prime or Netflix pages I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stories to become immersed in . Corporate business coaches have jumped on the storytelling bandwagon and narrative is big business. Or it was.

A few months ago I went to see a challenging play at the National Theatre in London. It was called The Antipodes by Annie Baker. The piece raised an interesting question for me. What if things got so bad in the world that no story could be told about such catastrophic events? What if we ever found ourselves in a time where stories are exposed as totally insufficient to hold the reality of a world gone berserk?

I found this particularly challenging because storytelling is my bread and butter. I am either helping psychotherapy or coaching clients weave new, more robust, more compassionate stories to live by or I’m writing about story. But what if a virus has blown a massive hole in the roadmaps, the stories we told ourselves to give ourselves some sense of control?

I think the one thing that is becoming clear is that however much we may want to reboot our old ways of mapping life as soon as possible, it may just not be possible. It feels like we have been violently wrenched from our day to day stories of ‘the way things are’ and dropped into an unknown ocean, far, far away. An ocean where the sea monsters roam. As we try to swim in these liminal waters we desperately lunge after any passing log or plank of narrative to bring some kind of meaning.

But

Maybe

Maybe the old maps and stories, the connective tissue of life will never return. Maybe they can’t hold or explain such a traumatised reality.

Or

Maybe

A time like this is precisely the kind of a moment when a new story emerges.

In most theories of story there is a moment early in the first act when we see a disruption to the hero’s everyday life. In classic storytelling structure this ‘Inciting Incident’ escalates to a point where it is sufficiently disruptive to everyday life that ‘something must be done’. This motivates the hero to cross the threshold from the known world and into the unknown in pursuit of a goal, a solution to the disruption. This first act process has just been massively accelerated across the world. The inciting incident of Covid 19 has hit with such force that we are all propelled across the threshold into an unknown world before we have even had a chance to make a plan. Most stories give the the hero a chance to refuse their call to action before they go all in. We haven’t had the luxury of grappling with the disruption. We are just in it and all the old maps are lost. What we do have in common with the classic ‘Hero’s Journey’ (First described by the anthropologist Joseph Campbell) is that to find our way in the dark we can no longer be the self-sufficient hero. According to Chris Vogler’s book The Writers Journey hero’s need help, mentors and guides to help navigate the swampy unknown. They need others to help them navigate the places where monsters roam.

So this may be where we are right now.

If so and if we are still following the classic hero’s journey story structure some questions may be emerging.

  1. Who will be your mentors? The online environment offers unlimited mentoring in everything from business start ups to HIT workouts. Who will you choose to guide you?
  2. What is your goal? Where are you trying to get to? In a locked down world these goals may start to look more internal and less external. In other words, what kind of person do you want to become?
  3. If the old road maps and stories of self-sufficiency and being able to control life have been ripped up, how will you start to co-create new stories of collaboration and compassion?

Andre is a life coach and therapist. He uses creative approaches to unlock new stories and opportunities for his clients.