The afterthoughts of staring at a road map

Published 10:56 am Friday, August 30, 2013

Column: Paths to Peace, by Ross Pirsig

I am in the backseat of our car, gazing at the U.S. road map held open by my dad, who is riding co-pilot while my mom drives. He’s just perusing. As I stare at the ever-so-familiar shape of that giant piece of land, I become struck by two thoughts.

Ross Pirsig

Ross Pirsig

Now, when this happens, my brain pulls layers out of these thoughts and sets them out to contemplate on all of their colors, textures and shapes. During this process, I become dazed. I am so entranced that my eyes go out of focus, as if saying, “Well, it looks like you’re literally lost in thought and have no momentary need for us at the moment.” Had my dad turned and saw my face during all of this, he would’ve surely got a good chuckle out of it. Before I explain my two thoughts, I need you to envision a typical U.S. road map.

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Thought No. 1: We live in a growing, breathing, and changing entity. I’m not talking about the entity that I’m using to chew this gum or write this column. Some say we do indeed live in that entity (and tend to call it our “body”) while others would say we are this very body. Anyways, Thought No. 1 has little to do with the anatomy of a person’s body, and everything to do with a nation’s body.

Visualize that road map of the United States. See its distinct form, its rivers and lakes, the ocean around it. Look at how the state and interstate highways web into a jumbled but functioning network across the whole country. Now imagine them as veins and arteries. Notice how they become more condensed and abundant the farther east you go, all the way to the coast. It is here the Founding Fathers signed the birth certificate of this land — the Constitution. It’s also where millions of our foreign ancestors came by force or will. Lastly, it’s where the country’s final decisions are made; the very “head” of our “body”: Washington, D.C. The Latin word “capitellum” is where we get “capital,” and it means “little head.”

This country-body metaphor might still sound silly, but let’s look at some of the words used to describe a country or nation.

First, the word itself: nation. Its Latin root “natio” means “born.” Something that is born must be alive and come from a part of someone or something. Think of a baby girl; let’s call her “Sophia.” Sophia was born of her parents who know that only through love, nourishment and discipline will she be able to grow and live healthily and happily. Therefore, she is of highest concern to them.

We all should know that the U.S. is our concern. That’s why we call it a republic. Its Latin root, “respublica” literally means “entity or concern of the people.” Collectively, we have the same responsibility toward our nation as Sophia’s parents. If we give it love, nourishment and discipline, it will grow. This must be done by creating ways to unite one another in love. We must pull together, put aside our differences, and continue to improve and foster peace.

The country we live in is big, but that’s why it is paradoxically divided and united by states. The Latin “status” means “condition.” Each state is a condition that we can alter — for better or worse. Think of them as 50 vital organs in the body of our nation, providing special functions. If one organ is suffering, the whole body feels it. Caring for what’s at home can sometimes be the best way to care for what’s outside and around you.

That brings me to Thought No. 2 on the road map: Canada and Mexico should not be painted in one color. Looking right above the elaborate portrait of our nation’s body, I see a dull, lifeless Canada. Below is an identically boring Mexico. I know this is a map of the U.S. and the road map cartographers do this to focus on the designated area, but it made me think symbolically about how many Americans view other countries as if they’re always in the peripheral. Let’s start seeing international people and their nations’ bodies just as beautiful and complex as we see ourselves. They are our brothers and sisters, who also need to be treated with love and care. If you trace fare enough back, we all come from these very nations we tend to ignore or oversimplify.

In conclusion, we are part of a body called the United States of America, that was born (nation), is ours and of our concern (republic) and has a changeable condition (state). Surrounded by other equally important bodies, we must not only care for our own condition, but for the others around us. Instead of trying to be better than the rest, we must focus on our best. A world in which we are free and others aren’t isn’t nearly as peaceful as a world where freedom and justice is indeed for all.

I now leave you with the beginning of the promise we’ve made to our body a long time ago. It’s the oath to do all the things aforementioned.

I pledge allegiance to the flag …


Albert Lea native Ross Pirsig has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and is a language and cultural assistant in Spain. He can be reached at