Mapmakers used to describe gaps in their knowledge of the world under the phrase terra incognita. The legend on old maps described uncharted, unimaginable expanses of unknown terrain. Krakens, dragons and every kind of supremely destructive beast were presumed to inhabit terra incognita. Prove they didn’t, using the maps of the day, you couldn’t. Therefore, under the coercive, superstitious logic of the day, these monsters actually lived in the terra incognita, and if you disagreed too conspicuously, you could be bound and publicly set on fire as an instruction to other monster skeptics.
Armed with better and better maps intrepid explorers, funded by kings, queens and wealthy early corporations (Dutch East India Company comes to mind) bravely ventured into these uncharted areas and the maps became more and more complete until there was no corner of the earth (except perhaps deep under the sea) that was truly terra incognita. Today the greatest expanse of terra incognita is inside the minds and hearts of homo sapiens.
A friend used to have a footer on his emails (which I was unable to find in a pile of emails to quote verbatim, dagnabbit): be kind, remember that everyone you meet is engaged in a hard battle. True, and good advice. The invisible battles waged by everyone are truly terra incognita. We stumble into this land of other people’s unimaginable terrors at our peril. When your interior battle crosses mine, watch out.
I spent two years, every day, writing everything I could think of about my father, a perplexing man of unlimited potential and unlimited defensiveness. My father was chased every moment of his waking life by what he referred to as the demons we all have inside us. After writing and conducting a long post-mortem discussion with him for two solid years I came to truly understand his motivations, though I didn’t always agree with them, and this understanding allowed me to truly forgive a destructive character who apologized for the first and only time at the very end of his life, hours before he breathed his last. Still, as well as I grasp the tragedy that was my father, the recesses of my heart are still haunted, as all such recesses are.
Do the same thing my father used to do, glare with implacable hostility, maintain an angry defensive silence, defend yourself in lawyerly and inhumane ways, create and insist on an insane counter-narrative to make me the aggressor, you the victim, and I immediately find myself in that familiar, terrifying, incoherent terra incognita. We can’t map this terrain because we can’t bear to look at it for more than a second or two at a time. It overpowers us and seems to limit our options to fight or flight. It is primitive, terrible, maddening business. We push it down because there is little else to do about it. Anyone seemingly not engaged in a hard battle is very good at acting, until you touch a nerve that sets off their fight or flight response.
We live in a culture where our collective terra incognita has been set on fire. Along with actual record wildfires on various continents, and the rage and violence we see and hear in many of our citizens, a fire rages in the hearts of tens of millions of us. This fire is fed regularly, and much of its most potent food is incoherent poison, things a healthy body would never put into its mouth. No matter. Down the hatch it goes, and instead of digestion, fire belches forth, to singe the eyebrows of anyone who dares to ask “Jesus, are you OK?”
When you breathe fire, of course, you are not OK, not fucking OK at all! How infuriating is that stupid question when the burning inside you is actually flaming out of your mouth and singeing the face of your interlocutor? Jesus, am I fucking OK? Yes, I’m fine, you’re the one who is about to die, asshole…