This week I finished a fantastic book called Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (see: Amazon link). The premise of the book is that we can better understand global politics as well as history when we factor in the role that geography itself plays. To fully grasp the ideas of this book, I took my dad’s recommendation and listened to the audiobook while literally staring at the map for that chapter. It provided a context for understanding that every person would benefit from seeing.
At first glance, this premise may seem trivial. How much could geography really affect the choices that people make? Yet there are many examples that prove this. Here is one:
Take, for example, China and India: two massive countries with huge populations that share a very long border but are not politically or culturally aligned. It wouldn’t be surprising if these two giants had fought each other in several wars, but in fact, apart from one monthlong battle in 1962, they never have. Why? Because between them is the highest mountain range in the world, and it is practically impossible to advance large military columns through or over the Himalayas.
If you read this book, you’ll likely see many details like this that start to explain many other ways that history has played out. It is a cycle that repeats itself generation after generation. “The rules of geography, which Hannibal, Sun Tzu, and Alexander the Great all knew, still apply to today’s leaders.”
In case you think the premise too far-reaching, the author puts it into a helpful context.
Of course, geography does not dictate the course of all events. Great ideas and great leaders are part of the push and pull of history. But they must all operate within the confines of geography.
Sure, free will matters. History matters. But both of these play out within the confines of geography. No matter what China and India decide to do in the future, the Himalayas will still be there.
This has me thinking: what other confines do we operate within?
We may wish to think ourselves exempt from this. It’s a very American way of thinking, as the United States itself enjoys a very favorable (one may even say privileged) geography compared to many other countries. Yet we overlook the confines to our own ignorance and naïveté.
Consider the parallel logic of the following statements:
- If you are unaware of the existence of the Himalayan mountain range (a geographical confine), you will have a hard time understanding the relationship between China and India.
- If you are unaware of the existence of racial privilege (a social confine), you will have a hard time understanding the tensions around us today.
Sadly, I fear our dismal awareness of geographical confines pales only in comparison to our dismal awareness of social confines. But here’s the great news: you aren’t stuck in your current understandings.
If you don’t understand the politics and history of the world you can read a book like this one. If you don’t understand why the NBA and other sports teams are protesting playing games… you can find out what would motivate this level of action. If you don’t understand what people of color continuing to be shot by police says about the systems in our country… you can ask new questions. If you don’t understand why people are still protesting… you can find out why this reaction is not going away. The goal in all of these conversations should ultimately be a new dose of empathy for a story that may be very different than your own.
The world is changing around us. Social confines are being exposed like never before. Things are not as they should be and action is required of us to make it better.
Think of someone you disagree with. If you could clearly understand the confines in their life you might better understand them as a person (this doesn’t mean you agree with them). Maybe they have only heard a certain perspective, or maybe they are afraid to challenge their own tribe, or maybe they want to change but don’t know where to go. Can we see the confines in their life clearly enough to reach them? Can we speak to them at a deeper level than the traditional narrative of “us vs. them” implies?
The Apostle Paul was skilled in this area and he told us how he did it.
When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.1 Corinthians 9:20-23
We are all shaped by confines in life and we would do well to learn how to recognize them. Many confines will never go away. But when we see social confines for what they are we can have more nuanced views of the world and a greater chance for empathy. Finding common ground in a polarized world requires a keen awareness of the social confines that shape each of us.Finding common ground in a polarized world requires a keen awareness of the social confines that shape each of us. Click To Tweet