Is it an Apartment or Swiss Cheese?

Screen shot of trail map.
Screen shot of trail map.

Climbing the Cook’s Ridge trail I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!”

So, who was right? Were either of us right?

In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my human conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.

Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves

I didn’t ask my partner about her thought process. I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at swiss cheese. Yes, she may have thought, this tree stump looks most like swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.

Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.

We all do this. A lot. We use our own internal thoughts and ideas to describe the external, particularly when encountering the novel or new. The creatures that live in the holes (if any even do) have no conception of apartment building. The holes in this stump were most likely not created in the same process that results in holes in swiss cheese.

The trouble with using our own internal thoughts and ideas to describe the external is that we can begin to think of our descriptions as objective fact. For example, we may describe someone else as “liberal” or “conservative” using our internal ideas of those terms. Our definitions may not be the same as another person’s definition.

We also do this with the one I call God. (I use the term “God” to describe the loving, non-coercive essence that connects each of us, that lives within each of us, and that encourages all that is to respond in each moment to respond in the most-loving way.) For me, the Christian narrative helps me to make sense of the divine. The person of Jesus serves as my teacher, rabbi, guru, and model for how to respond lovingly and become who I am created to be.

However, if I become so tied to the Christian narrative as objective fact that I do not respond in love to others, then I’ve not only become idolatrous, I’ve missed the truth: the love and interconnectedness that underlies all that is.

If I become so convinced of the rightness of my description of the hole-y tree stump as Rodent Apartment versus my hiking partner’s Swiss Cheese, I risk severing our relationship. That’s serious business when it is neither.

Losing Sight of the Big Picture or What’s Wrong with Mapquest

I am on the road again traveling between training events. On my journey to Martinsburg, West Virginia Monday afternoon it occurred to me that Google maps (or Mapquest or Yahoo maps) may be a perfect analogy for the tunnel vision we often possess when educating and parenting young children.

As I referred to my Google maps printout of my journey, I found the directions clear, specific, and practical. Still, I felt lost, like I didn’t know where I was. Internet driving directions get me to my destination without difficulty but they lack what a folded paper map provides: perspective. In the old days when I pulled out the AAA maps, I always had a sense of my whole journey and the detail I needed to get to my destination. With internet mapping, however, the focus is on the detail to the exclusion of the whole.

I fear this focus on the detail to the exclusion of the whole is often true of our time with young children. As parents, we focus on nutrition labels and attempt to provide all the nutrients our child needs in his or her diet. As educarers, we focus on developmental checklists and meeting standards in our educaring. And, yet, while all of these are ostensibly good for children this focus on the detail sometimes gives us tunnel vision.

In our tunnel vision, we miss the joy of simply being with our children as our parental angst increases. We worry that 5 grams too much of the wrong kind of fat will irreparably harm our daughters and sons. In our tunnel vision, as educarers, we miss the spontaneity and teachable moments that provide the best learning experiences as we worry about the ECERS (Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale) or state learning standards.

As I followed my internet directions, I knew that my next turn would be in 24.2 miles but I didn’t know how long I’d be in Maryland or what was around the next bend. I didn’t know why Harper’s Ferry was significant. I didn’t have a sense of the distance I was traveling or of where I was on this big blue planet.

As parents, we can provide the correct nutrients and have a child who never experiences the joy that comes from sharing good food, laughter, and family times at the dinner table. As educarers, we can have all the right equipment and the required labels on the walls while the children never experience the passion and joy for learning about the amazing world around us.

Perhaps, we need to emerge from the tunnel, take a moment to allow our eyes to adjust to the light, and begin to focus on building relationships with children. In doing so we can help children discover what they really need: love, happiness, joy, and curiosity.