After college, this small-town Southern girl moved to New York City to start my first “real” job; a job that offered a salary, health insurance, and a handful of vacation days. Those were pre-smartphone days. There were no car navigation systems or MapQuest websites to direct me to my destination before traveling. What I had back then, which I actually studied every time I ventured out, was a map of NYC posted on my bedroom wall. I had memorized my most common routes, including possible detours. My biggest fear, having grown up in a two stop-light town, was getting lost in the big city and ending up with a gun to my head, the most likely outcome of getting lost, right?
Eleven months after I moved there, my parents and sister drove up, and I had planned some fun things for us to do. I drove us from my apartment in Queens to Manhattan (I drove everywhere, even though I knew how to ride the subways in Manhattan). While looking for a parking spot in a safe-enough area to leave my car for the day, I turned down an unfamiliar street. Realizing my mistake, I immediately made a U-Turn, to my screaming family’s horror. “It’s ok!” I reassured them, “That’s not as bad as getting lost here!” (My queasy passengers were NOT reassured.)
We make mental maps wherever we live, even with Siri now easily accessible. Mine tend to have fuzzy edges. I know my usual routes well, but the areas I don’t frequent are blank spaces in my mind. I might have a vague idea of a main thoroughfare, but basically, it’s just a blank space where the lines drop off. I’d like to look beyond my fuzzy borders to find out what I’m missing.
I recently read a book called “Hillbilly Elegy”, by J.D. Vance. The book challenged my notions of poverty and the solutions I’ve long believed would best address it. Mr. Vance, a Yale Law School graduate, was an unlikely Ivy Leaguer, having come from a poor family. In his memoir, he describes the culture surrounding his family, the decline of jobs where he grew up, and the unseen networks and systems that wealthier kids utilize to navigate their way into successful adulthood. While Mr. Vance doesn’t offer a neatly packaged solution to our national wealth disparity, he does paint a picture around one of the blank spaces where the edges of my mental map begin to blur.
I think the road to deeper understanding begins with identifying our fuzzy map edges. Taken literally, I can drive to a section of town I’ve never explored and have a look around. Even this small act can serve to reorient my little corner of the world. I’ll gain a different perspective of something I think of as familiar. Metaphorically, I can pick up another book to gain a view into someone else’s experience. Their experience will inform my own experience, and I can grow in understanding and compassion. Only through understanding and compassion will we ever connect and recognize our shared humanity in each other. Then we can rise above the din of angry voices surrounding us and work together to make our country and our world a better, more heartfelt place to live.