The Map Is Not the Territory

Dr. Holcomb with me (left, in the photo being taken), and a few friends from Gordon College on the day of our graduation.

Dr. Holcomb with me (left, in the photo being taken), and a few friends from Gordon College on the day of our graduation.

Last night, I found out that my college sociology professor and beloved mentor, Dr. H, passed away a few days ago. It is such a tragic loss.

In the last 12 hours, I’ve talked with many people I went to college with. Some people I talk to everyday, others I haven’t spoken with in years. But we’ve all been brought together in this hard time – which I think is such a testament to his life. He brought people together. He taught us to love people – the marginalized, the scrutinized, the invisible.

It’s hard to move forward in times like this. We’re searching for answers, most of them to the question Why?, and we’re just not finding ones that truly satiate.

I was looking through my old sociology notebooks last night before I went to bed. I’ve consciously saved and treasured them all these years, knowing that they’d be a guide for me in the future, whether I pursued sociology or not. They’re filled with scratchy notes that are hardly legible because I had to write so fast to keep up with him. There are hard questions written in the margins. There are reminders written in huge letters and emboldened with ink: Grapple with what you learn! The class in itself keeps individuals from seeing their commonalities! This is one of my favorites, Pursue knowledge, pursue learning, and be an intelligent Christian! And maybe the most important thought: We are that which we study.

In all of his classes, he always started with the three assumptions of sociology. They are:

There is a dialectical relationship between an individual and society.

We are all equal, but we are not the same.

The map is not the territory.

There were so, so many conversations about #3 between me and my friends over the years as we went through as many courses of his we could get our hands on. It is hard to understand, and I ended up with the job of explaining it to a lot of them. Dr. H had asked me to be his TA, and even though I had passed (hindsight can be a bitter pill to swallow, can’t it?), I became a sort of unofficial one to friends and fellow students.

This principle that the map is not the territory means that no individual has access to the whole of society or what they experience. If we drew a map of the US, or of the world, we’d all start in different places – the places that we are most familiar with, with where we belong. We relate, not to reality, but to our perception of reality. And not everyone’s perception is the same. Reality is recorded and translated, and it is these perspectives that sociologists are interested in. We want a mosaic of realities.

So when you’re someone who is pursuing truth, this can be troublesome. If (if) we have limited access to the truth, then what are Christians supposed to do? Without 100% affirmation that what we believe is real, we are kind of, all of the sudden, transformed into an array of sinking Peter’s, our doubt weighing us down, deep into the ocean, like cement blocks.

Truth – it is infinitely more complex than we can fathom. We will never be fully able to grasp it in its wholeness, and for me, this is where faith comes in. We can ask as many questions as we can possibly think of in our lifetime. We can understand, even in the smallest of ways, from a collective perspective, more maps so that we can better understand the territory. And from there, serve and love the people who live in different territories with different maps.

Dr. H loved learning about all of our maps. He was a true collector. He was always there with an open door and an open mind to wrestle through the tough questions, to compassionately guide us when we were blasé and acting like we didn’t care, to be one of our greatest advocates.

I didn’t truly understand his reality, nor him mine, but the real truth that comes out of all of this, out of our interaction, his life and now death, is this: loving others is our greatest task.

As he said himself in an email to a classmate, “Remember, the most important thing we can do when discussing issues related to social justice is re-present the love of Christ. Only the Almighty has the full answers; we do the best we can with what we’ve been given — and no matter what side of the issue we’re on, it is a lot more complex than any of us could ever fathom…”

There has been a lot of death in my life recently, but despite all of this, I’ve got so much to look forward to. A hard workout this morning with my trainer, Ali. A sociology exam whose ass I’m going to kick. A research assistantship this summer, for which I received a grant. House projects, vacations with the family, a PhD (in like, 10 years). It’s hard to imagine not sharing that last part with Dr. H, though. We all experience loss, we move forward in life, and we find new mentors, but I always thought he’d be there when I got my doctoral hood and my own office and my own students. I always thought that he’d sneak into one of my classes when I was teaching, to ask the tough questions just to say, in a snarky way, that he was proud of me. I always thought we’d have coffee on my visits to Boston.

I thought we had more time.

I am in graduate school now because of him. I am becoming a sociologist because of him. I am a free thinking global citizen who seeks truth and respect in this increasingly convoluted and frightening world. Because of him. He changed my life.

And I guess it’s up to me to decide whether or not I want to pick up the torch and teach like he taught. I don’t think that I would have said I was ready if he’d walked up to me with it. But I don’t have a choice now. There it lays, the torch of knowledge and grace and passion and hope. I have to pick it up.

I want to share a few words with you all that Dr. H shared with me when I was going through a tough time a few years ago. I hope it inspires you as much as it inspired me.

Failure is not the end of the world, it is the beginning of understanding and knowledge. People who love us will not be disappointed by our failures, they are more likely to want to help us review the experience, process it and help us in moving on from it. The anxiety will only become less the more you engage these opportunities. There is wisdom in all of our experience, and most people say they learn more from their failures than from their successes… Go figure. However, if we are so afraid of failure that we never take any risks, we never gain this wisdom. And while this lack of risk-taking is comforting in the moment, it is extremely frustrating, as you have pointed out, to look back and say to yourself ‘I should have tried.’ Finally, Anne, I believe you know all these things– and you also know there are a lot of people out there who think you’re really smart and capable. That’s not the issue. Instead of knowing you’re smart and capable, you have to believe it. Nobody else can make you believe it. You have to prove it to yourself, and that means taking a risk… So Anne, I hope this helps. If you choose not to accept this challenge, others will present themselves. However, know that with every risk we avoid, taking the next one becomes even more challenging… So Anne, good luck, and let me know what you decide to do… blessings, dr. H.