Life Maps

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If you find yourself stuck – in an unhealthy relationship, an unsatisfying job, an unstable financial predicament, or an unending creative funk – a life map provides a big-picture view of how you reached your current impasse. Creating a life map can help you understand the journey to your current position, however you define it. The map’s scale should take on whatever dimensions feel right. In other words, your map could chart your path through the last few weeks, the most recent couple of months, or the preceding two decades.

Although we are addicted to the small screens of our phones, a broad view is often necessary for us to gain a more accurate perspective on where we have been and where we are now. If we challenge ourselves to step outside of our minds, grab a box of colored pencils or pens, and create a life map we can (1) stretch our awareness, (2) uncover people, places, and events that have been forgotten or discarded, (3) affirm our involvement in experiences that have been unsettling or confusing, (4) take ownership of those very experiences by placing them on the page, and (5) reveal connections and/or patterns between the landmarks that appear as the map takes shape.

The life map featured above was created in 2011 or 2012. Honestly, I cannot remember the circumstances that motivated me to design it. I was not in crisis, but I was also not at peace with my state of affairs. I do recall, however, the sense of excitement that grew inside me when I envisioned placing my path on paper. An eagerness to see what would emerge from my efforts quickly took hold, and I grabbed a pencil to begin the process. My goal was to cover the page and, in doing so, uncover something that I felt I was missing. The first shape that I drew was the outline of the state of Pennsylvania in the lower-right corner.

Once the outline of Pennsylvania was sketched out, I added three cities of familial importance – Pittsburgh, State College, and Philadelphia – and then had the idea to indicate what sorts of activities and interests I enjoyed during the years I lived in the first of those cities. What resulted was the arrow arcing from Pittsburgh to the timeline stretching from ages 0 to 11. From there, I needed to indicate a monumental change in the trajectory of a kid growing up in a comfortable home at the top of a dead end street. My family moved to Michigan after I finished 5thgrade, so I drew a sort of bursting star around the word Move! and surrounded it with exclamation points. This same star technique was utilized several inches above the original to mark my parents’ divorce at the end of my high school years.

There are two points that I would like to make regarding the manner in which my map was produced: (1) I did not start with a plan, an outline, or a list of bullet points. Rather, I followed my hunch that I needed to begin with my home state. So I took a chance and placed its silhouette in the lower-right corner. (2) I did not “edit” or “rearrange” the landmarks as I was crafting them. Where you see them now is where my instincts, imagination, and sense of creativity motivated me to place them. In other words, I let the map emerge organically on the page in front of me. I let go of my desire to be a perfectionist, and embraced that what I was designing was intended to appear in small steps from the ether. My advice is to follow these two practices – take a blank sheet of paper and begin wherever it feels right to do so, and then let the process take over and surrender to it.

Lastly, I want to comment about something on my map that I find uncomfortable but perhaps necessary. Do you notice the sizeable white space near the top-center of the page? I wish it weren’t there. I wish it were filled with another image or two and/or some text that adds more value to the overall piece. But that is not the way that the map was produced. That “gap” emerged naturally, and I elected to let it remain there. Now it serves as a sort of reminder that projects hatched from the heart are not always (ever?) going to adhere to some of our cognitive desires for “neatness” or “balance” or “completion.” And, as the years have passed, I find that I almost don’t care that the space sits there. Please give yourself this same leeway; let go of the self-critical inner voice and accept – even anticipate, perhaps – that the map that you create may not initially be as pleasing as you had hoped.

What is most important is that whatever landscape of shapes, labels, and arrows you produce, its totality yields insights into your present condition.

Past, Present, Future Graphic

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This morning I began thinking about a diagram that could identify the components  needed for the pursuit of goals. What resulted after an hour’s sketching is the piece featured above. Initially drafted in pencil, the graphic was then inked over to make the shapes and text more solid. It features three sections: Past, Present, and Future.

Where we exist day-to-day is not identified necessarily by the Present, the central circle. Rather, we exist as healthy individuals in the Present only if we have achieved adequate Understanding of the Past.

If we can explain to ourselves – and others, ideally – how the experiences of yesterday have brought us to today, then we might say that we have developed a sufficient Understanding of the preceding months or years. And by doing so, we can declare that we exist in the Present even though we may regularly look back to the Past to confirm how we navigated the challenges that once stood in our way.

If we don’t understanding our Past, then we effectively still live there, continually trying to wrap our heads around it. Without the necessary discipline, honesty, or insight, we can find ourselves trapped in the Past, struggling to reckon with periods that may be months or years old. If a mentor or counselor can help us walk through the Past and see its elements more clearly, then we can develop the Understanding we need to advance to – and live in – the Present.

A healthy, functional Present possesses two components: Belonging and Self-love (or Worthiness). Belonging refers to the inherent comfort and acceptance we feel in our physical and social environments. If we were in a different place, we would not feel as relaxed or as part of the natural world order. We feel “at home” in our current environment when we are experiencing a sense of Belonging. Belonging’s half-circle sits above Self-love. The former’s position symbolizes that Belonging is more external — more outward — than Self-love.

Like Belonging, Self-love is based on the notion of acceptance. When we feel at home inside of ourselves – when we value and love the person that we are despite our imperfections – we experience an acceptance by internal forces. Our heart, mind, and spirit validate our inherent Worthiness even though we may recognize that we are not yet as “complete” or as “well-developed” as we wish we were.

When we experience both Belonging and Self-love in the Present, we feel stable and rooted. We feel whole. And in this state, we can look ahead to the Future as a place where we can enlarge ourselves – where we can stretch our abilities and achieve a more expansive circle of Belonging and Self-love.

To strive for personal growth, we set goals; we begin making plans for a new, better Future. Two components are necessary to build a bridge to the imagined self. Purpose/Mission fills the top-half of the Future’s forward arrow. Below it lies Faith/Optimism. A healthy Future outlook needs these two components to align.

A goal does not exist until a Purpose or Mission has been identified, and it should be desirable, measurable, and achievable. If you don’t want to reach it, or you can’t realistically each it, then the goal remains a dream. There is nothing wrong with dreams, of course. They are the longings of the soul; they represent aspirational states of being. In contrast, goals represent landmarks that the heart, mind, and spirit – working in unison – can help us reach with the necessary discipline, sacrifice, and resourcefulness.

Once a Purpose or Mission has been selected – completing a half-marathon, for example – and the heart, mind, and spirit are united in working towards its attainment, the lower-half of the Future arrow comes into play: Faith/Optimism. With the goal identified, we must believe that our heart, mind, and spirit are up to the task. Our sense of Faith and/or Optimism is what will keep us moving forward when inner and outer obstacles arise. And they will arise.

On the way to our goal, we will likely question our ability to realize our Purpose or accomplish our Mission. We will likely doubt ourselves. We may begin internalizing others’ criticisms about what we are doing. And when that questioning, doubting, and internalizing lead to worry and insecurity, the Faith and Optimism that exist below the surface will be called on to support our continued movement toward the goal. We might say that the Purpose or Mission walks across the bridge constructed by Faith and/or Optimism.

When Faith/Optimism falters, then the Purpose or Mission necessarily becomes unstable. If Faith and/or Optimism collapse, then the Purpose or Mission falls quickly away — retreating to the landscape of dreams deferred. The goal becomes lost because we can no longer muster the belief that it is something that we can achieve. The heart, mind, and spirit stand as a powerful trinity, but they cannot execute the goal’s plan without the underlying resolve, gentleness, and grace afforded by Faith or Optimism.