Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Remapping the Mind

I seldom discover a book I think almost everyone would benefit from reading, since we differ so much in our tastes and needs. However, I did read a book this year that anyone seriously seeking to understand themselves could read with great benefit. This book is filled with serious insights presented with enough humor that it is helpful without being patronizing or threatening.

The book is titled Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Dr. Gordon Livingston, MD, with a foreword by Elizabeth Edwards. I kept seeing myself, warts and all, in every chapter.

Dr. Livingston begins the first chapter by telling of an experience he had as a young lieutenant in an airborne division, trying to orient himself on a field problem at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was studying a map when his platoon sergeant, a seasoned veteran with many more years of field experience than ‘green' junior officers, approached and asked if he had figured out their location. Livingston said: "Well, the map says there should be a hill over there, but I don't see it." The old sergeant said: "Sir, if the map don't agree with the ground, then the map is wrong." Dr. Livingston said that he knew at once he had just heard a profound truth.

We grow up building maps in our heads about how life should be lived and how problems should be solved. These maps are made up of observations and instructions from many sources. Children are keen observers but poor interpreters. When we are very young, we literatelly interpret what we see and hear. One six-year-old child asked his mother how God was able to do everything that God does with his left hand. Puzzled by this question, the mother asked the child why he thought God did everything with his left hand, to which the lad replied that at church they said "Jesus was sitting on the right hand of the Father." Perhaps this piece of that child's theological map was corrected before it was permanently fixed. There are many mental maps based on childhood observation that are carried into adulthood without question. Don't be afraid to question your maps, even those with religious contours. It is not unfaithful to question. Don't be afraid to ask questions because God has the answers and will give us the answers when we are ready. There is an axiom on my desk where all who seek counsel can see. It says: "When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come." I Corinthians 13:11 says: "When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things." To learn what things are now childish, we need to ask, probe, and check to see if our mental maps match the ground we walk on.

We learn what a family should be like by observing our family of origin. We learn how to choose a mate from early observations of family, relatives and the community in which we grew up. Given the poor success rate of marriage, many mental maps about marriage and family obviously leave much to be desired. And, when what we learned about marriage and family when we were young is obviously not working, it would be the better part of wisdom to listen to the axiom of the old sergeant: "If the map don't agree with the ground, the map is wrong". People are different. We are not our parents. Trying to apply a "New York mental map" to a "California marriage" is courting disaster. The sage advise from which we constructed our mental maps about marriage in 1950 may well have lost it's sagacity by 2010. So, "if the map don't agree with the ground ----". Questioning our childhood observations is not easy, even when what we are doing based on those observations is obviously not working.

So much of life is a process of trying to get the maps in our heads to match the ground on which we are walking. Many serious mistakes come of doggedly following the maps in our heads and disregarding what we see and experience. I know a man who once heard his grandmother say that buying insurance was foolish. He quoted her often. He loved his grandmother. He never bought insurance. When he died, his family suffered severe financial problems because he never corrected the map in his head about insurance.

We learned many things as children that were not true in the way we understood them to be. We also learned things that were correct when we first learned about them, but which are no longer true. Most of the problems clergy and counselors deal on a daily basis have to do with poor mental maps that do not agree with the ground. Re-mapping our minds to correspond with the reality of the ground around us is a life-long task. If we do not give this task proper attention we can lose our way in a confusing and changing landscape.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart is the best book I have read this year. It is a good investment for anyone who is serious about re-mapping the mind to match the ground. Buy the book and read it. You can thank me at your leisure.