Charting Unknown Territory

March 25, 2011

Nikolay Okhitin,
In my reading this morning, I stumbled on a phrase that captured my imagination: terra incognita.

Terra incognita means “unknown territory.” It’s a term cartographers used to use to describe unmapped or undocumented regions. According to urban legend, these areas were sometimes labelled “Here be dragons,” though only one map survives with this wording (“Hic svnt dracones”). However, Roman and medieval cartographers did mark maps with the phrase, “Hic svnt leones,” which means “Here are lions.” (Wikipedia)

Why do we expect scary things (dragons, lions) when we face the unknown? Why not expect unicorns, or daisies? It seems to be human nature to expect the worst when facing the unknown, and to some extent, that’s what keeps explorers alive: expecting and preparing for the worst.

To my knowledge, there are no more unknown and unmapped physical lands, though terra incognita is sometimes used metaphorically to describe an unexplored subject or field of research. However, there is still the unknown land, the terra incognita, of the future. None of us knows what the future holds, though plenty of dire predictions can be found as close as your nearest screen—TV or computer.

Since we will all navigate the unknown land of the future, what tools should we use? The same ones we use in navigating our known world: our good sense, our friends and family, our spiritual principles, our ability to learn, and a positive outlook that we can handle whatever lions life throws at us. While we explore, we should be on the lookout for the positive, not just the negative, because I’m more and more convinced we see what we expect to see.

While we certainly should prepare for negative eventualities in our lives, why not also prepare for positive ones? Save money not just for a calamity, but for a celebration once the promotion comes through, the report card contains straight As, or the grandchild is born.

Truly, every new day is terra incognita. We don’t know what it will bring. Whatever it holds for us—daisy or dragon, unicorn or lion—if we cling to our tools of navigation, we’ll come through safely.

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  1. I had to laugh at saving money for a celebration. My daughter does just that. She is saving (unbeknownst to her husband who had it head over heels on Scrooge)for a shopping spree in a couple of years. A BIG shopping spree. She and the girls are having fun anticipating it.

    As far as lands yet to explore, I just read about one. With global warming the northern areas around the pole that have been unpassable by ships is beginning to open up. We are exerting our presence there just like the Russians and some others. Everyone wants to claim the area for their own. I hope it doesn't lead to trouble (those lions and dragons you mentioned). I agree we should look for the good as well as watch out for the bad that can happen. Balance! I'll bet most of the explorers planned on some good or they would not have explored. We can be careful but we can only go forward when we expect some good things to happen. Hope. That's it. Be prepared but keep up the hope.

  2. Timaree--I love your daughter's idea of saving up for a shopping spree! It will be so fun, and all the more so for the planning and saving done beforehand.

    I think your comments are spot on. Be prepared, but keep up the hope. Good words to live by.

  3. "What fresh hell is this?" popped into my my mind when I read "Here be dragons." And yet, neither fresh hell nor dragons can keep us from moving towards that unexplored territory can it? (Do you hear the creepy music playing in the background?!)

    And yes, I think we find what we expect to find. We might as well go looking for unicorns and daisies. I've had enough of these "drag-ons" for a while.

  4. Laure--Good point--we are marching forward into the future whether we want to or not! We might as well look for unicorns and daisies.


  5. A delightful post. Did you know that many years ago when us Brits came and conquered your USA, the maps at one stage had a lot of terra incognitia but in amongst that, for a giggle, one of the cartographers drew an elephant, hahaha - no dragons though!
    I love the unknown, the path less travelled is the one more rewarding :) Here's to the future. It's the not knowing that keeps us going (I think anyway).

  6. Thanks, Carrie! I love your adventurous, positive attitude about the unknown.

  7. Hi Kathy,

    What a great post! Thanks so much ... and for teaching me another name for the great unknown.

    We can't let circumstances or others steal our hope, and that is what I am trying to focus on, as everything seems to fall apart.

    Thank you for being a blessing!

  8. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Kathy!