by Pastor Doug Kings

I’ve been thinking about mental maps and routines. Our mental maps are pictures in our head of the world as we experience it. That they exist can surprise us. They can be remarkably detailed. Some of them are literally maps. They are the reason why, after making a few trips, we don’t have to get out a physical map to get to work or the grocery store. But they have their limits, which we discover when we encounter “ROAD CLOSED” and get forced off our usual route. “Where’s a map?!”

Mental maps are more than routes we take. They are also a picture of the world as we are accustomed to experiencing it. I attended a small college in south central Wisconsin. There were about a thousand students and a few hundred faculty and staff. I genuinely knew only a small fraction of them. Yet I discovered I had a mental map that included nearly everyone. Whenever I encountered someone on campus who wasn’t part of the college community, a message passed through my head: “They don’t belong here.” I couldn’t place them in my mental map of the college.

Such mental maps give us a sense of well-being. They establish what’s familiar and normal. If a landmark on a regular trip we take disappears, we are at least slightly unsettled. Our brain now must remake our map. Disruptions to maps from our past (aka memories) can be very unsettling.

You’ve probably experienced this if you’ve returned to where you grew up. It’s not like going to a strange place you’ve never been. Go to a previously familiar place and you are disoriented because it isn’t fitting your memory of it. “What happened to the drug store? Wasn’t that house green?” You have a map, but your experience isn’t matching it. It can leave you feeling queasy or anxious.

Our mental maps help us to navigate our world. In some situations they keep us safe by alerting us to potential danger, as when we recognize something, or someone is out-of-place. They also make life easier, taking a strain off our brain. We don’t have to think about every turn we take on our various excursions. “I could do this blindfolded,” we might say about our drive to work.

Routines and habits also help us navigate our world, often in conjunction with those mental maps. They are behaviors we perform regularly with a minimal amount of serious thinking. A pattern of activity has developed in our brains which we can carry out with minimal conscious attention.

The varieties of these routines are enormous. They can involve highly technical and manual skills like those of a craftsman, athlete, musician, or surgeon. But they can also be more mundane, like getting up in the morning or getting ready for bed. Many involve the structure of our day-to-day lives: eat, sleep, do laundry, go shopping, play golf, go to church.

When our routines are disrupted, like with our mental maps, we often feal disoriented. “Now what do I do?” Many of our routines involve multiple activities. If one event is missed there can be a cascading series of disruptions. “My whole day was thrown off!”

The 2+ years of pandemic have given the whole world this experience on an unprecedented scale. In many ways it hasn’t been pretty, with most of us experiencing waves of frustration, anger, and depression at the loss of control over our lives.

There is one experience more than any other which disrupts both our mental maps and our routines: death. The death of a close family member or friend causes a massive disruption to our mental world. Our routines involving that person come to an end, sometimes abruptly and jarringly. Our mental image of our world now has a large hole in it.

This is when we discover that those maps and routines also have an emotional content. Our emotional connections with people lodge them deeply in our minds. Their loss can be a huge blow to our sense of equilibrium. The experience can be an emotional earthquake. “My world was turned upside down.”

Not only does death cause the loss of someone intimately part of our life, but it also dramatically increases our own insecurity. However much we may have thought about our own mortality, the death of someone close to us forces to recognize that the same fate awaits us. As they say in the movies, “None of us are getting out of here alive.” Now that’s a disruption to our routine.

The question in all these experiences, but mostly especially in death, is where do we find security, continuity, permanence, eternity? How do we regain our bearings and find the energy to move forward? Words can help: philosophy, theology, scripture, etc. Reshaping and redirecting our thinking can be very important in finding a “new normal.”

But ideas are usually not enough. They don’t touch us deeply. We aren’t just our brains. We also need something to reconnect us with our spirits, and for that there are two avenues: beauty and love.

When we look at our experiences of loss (and that’s what these disruptions to our maps and routines really are), we realize that it is the perceived loss of beauty or love—or both—that underlay them. Order is the essence of our maps and routines and is one of the fundamental dimensions of beauty. For the Navajo, the highest form of living is “walking in beauty.” Losing a family member or friend is losing a source of the love which affirms us, supports us, and gives our lives meaning, purpose, and joy.

Rediscovering beauty and love are the surest paths to reestablishing equilibrium in our lives and to living with hope. What was lost often can’t be replaced, but what the lost provided us can be found elsewhere.

Reconnecting with family and friends or creating new relationships makes us realize that love is indeed all around us. Similarly, experiencing music and the arts, and spending time in nature connects us with the world and helps us rediscover the essential joy of living.

This is the essence of living in the Spirit, of living with faith, hope, and love. And by reconnecting with our own spirit, we find what Paul describes as “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Blessings in your life and ministry.