“Mightn’t it be a good thing if everyone had to draw a map of his own mind — say, once every five years? With the chief towns marked, and the arterial roads he was constructing from one idea to another, and all the lovely and abandoned by-lanes that he never went down, because the farms they led to were all empty?”
I have been reflecting on this passage from Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion for a couple of weeks now, and am still not at all sure what he meant by it. I wonder, though, if most of us, challenged to do so, could draw a map of our own mind.
Asked why we support one political party or another — for instance — we can’t really say why, not beyond the standard prejudices and logical fallacies. I suspect that many people support the Democrats or the Republicans because their parents supported them, and their inherited notions are shored up by a lifetime of watching and reading only news that justifies what we already believe.
This kind of narrow or shallow belief is a terrible dilemma for a writer. A writer, in my humble opinion, needs to be willing to examine her own deepest beliefs and see into them, even through them. She needs to understand that her beliefs are not necessarily “true,” but a kind of lens through which she views the world. She needs to be willing to set her lens aside, and even to pick up another lens now and then. Otherwise she runs the risk of creating one-dimensional characters and a world that feels less than authentic. I’m not saying the writer has to smash her lens with a hammer or permanently misplace them, just that she can (must) risk imagining from another’s viewpoint.
A long time ago, when one of my frequent teaching duties was a class called Writing the Research Paper, I used to require that students choose for their big, end-of-the-quarter research paper, a topic they were willing to look at from both sides. On their list of sources they had to include written arguments on both sides of the topic, and personal interviews. (We talked at length about how to have a respectful conversation with someone holding an opposite viewpoint.)
My students didn’t always follow my advice, or they did so in the most cursory way — choosing topics such as gun control or abortion (and quarter after quarter producing one-sided papers I grew very, very tired of reading). But when a student did take me seriously, the results were astounding. Often, the student writer found her opinion flipping from one side of the argument to the other. It was life-changing.
Charles Williams thought every five years would suffice, but what if for every presidential election season, you had to read all the pros and cons and have respectful conversations with people from your opposite political party, and actually make an accounting of why you think what you think?
What if you had to take a turn arguing the opposite side?
What if you could draw a map of your own mind? What winding staircases would you sketch in? What nearly overgrown paths might you reclaim? What towers would you dismantle?
Would you discover any newly created volcanic islands or a significant shift of continents? Can you say what it is exactly that you believe? Can you explain why you believe it?