When I was a kid, I watched Little House on the Prairie. I still can hear the theme song in my head and visualize the Ingalls girls running (or stumbling) down the grassy hill in their calico dresses. I remember what the Ingalls family farm and the town of Walnut Grove looked like. I can see the schoolhouse in my mind’s eye.
When I moved from Washington to Wisconsin a few weeks ago, I made a point to stop in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, on the way. Of course, the town doesn’t look like it did when the Ingalls family was around. I wish they had recreated the set from the TV show. I wanted to buy some stick candy and a sack of flour at Oleson’s Mercantile.
The museum was closed for the season. We went to the gift shop (always open), where I bought stick candy. In the middle of a neighborhood, we saw the spot where the Union Congressional Church had stood. In 1874, Charles Ingalls donated $3 to help buy a new church bell, which now rings a few blocks away at the English Lutheran Church.
A couple of miles north of town is the site of the family’s dugout home, on the banks of Plum Creek. The home is no longer there; there’s merely a depression in the side of the hill that rises up from the creekbank.
Here I stood, where the real Ingalls family lived nearly 150 years ago. It seemed foreign to my imagination. In my mind, the fake Walnut Grove (a television set in California) was the real Walnut Grove. Throughout my life, my picture of reality was a visual fiction. When I finally was immersed in the real thing, I didn’t recognize it.
The Fictions in My Mind
It made me think about how often I do this with realities that truly matter. I have ideas in my head that are well established. How accurate are they? If I encountered the reality of those ideas, would I recognize it?
Years ago, I worked as an intelligence analyst in drug enforcement investigations. Part of my job was figuring out the full identity of certain traffickers. Often, they had multiple aliases and nicknames. I put all of the pieces together for one particular trafficker and came up with an identity: Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto*. Eventually, he was arrested. He was officially identified as Pedro Antonio Marquez-Carrasco*.
Who?! That could not possibly be my trafficker, whom I had gotten to “know” over the previous year or two. My trafficker was Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto. I don’t know this Pedro Antonio Marquez-Carrasco. There had to be a mistake somewhere.
Of course, the mistake was mine. I made an incorrect identification. When the true ID was made, it was completely foreign to me, and I have trouble accepting it to this day! I had been so sure. For months, this person was Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto, as far as I was concerned. The “fiction” became a reality in my mind. When the true reality confronted me, I was disoriented.
We all do it. Sometimes we become so sure of something, we let momentum establish it as a fact in our mind. When we encounter the actual fact, we don’t recognize it. Too often, we dismiss it because it doesn’t fit in our box.
It’s difficult not to make boxes. But, we will do well if we remember that they are our boxes and not necessarily fact or reality. We should never close the door to new evidence, and we must always desire the truth above all else.
*The names have been changed to protect the guilty.