Path or Road? The Ethical Dynamic of Communication

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” Proverbs 18:21

road path.jpg

If we believe James, the tongue is a veritable “world of iniquity” (3:6). This places us, from the start, several steps back from where we may be inclined to begin contemplating our habits of communication. If it's a world of iniquity, the issues in communication must be a great deal more than saying nice things or not, remembering please and thank you, not raising one's voice. And this is precisely what the testimony of Scripture bears out. Speech, as communication coming from God's image bearers, is central to who we are, to our relationship to the God we are commanded to love with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to how we care, or fail to care, for our neighbor.

Our communicative habits, which is to say not only the words we use but also the ways we say them, the things we choose not to say and why, the things we communicate nonverbally, etc. - these habits also communicate us – the truth of who we are – a great deal more than we sometimes think. Scripture's consistent refrain that patterns of conduct tell the truth about the person, despite any claims by that person to the contrary, is particularly true of communication: it is, after all, out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Lk 6:45).

But the sinful heart is a deceptive thing; it hides itself even from the sinner. The psalmist, with proper humility, pleads with God to be made right from “hidden faults,” – that is, faults which remain hidden to himself. After all, “who can discern his (own) errors?” (Ps. 19:12). Appropriately, David has a greater interest in a pure heart before God than a pure reputation before men, so he pleads with God to show him the faults to which he is blinded by sin, and presumably he asks for this disclosure in the context of his meditation on God's law in the company of the righteous.

Communication and Stewardship

Because communicative sins are as many and varied as the ways one person can potentially relate to another, and because we can deceive ourselves about our own sins, we need to step back far enough from some of the particular questions we'll come to later to remember why communication is so significant in the first place.

In short, communication is centrally significant because of our unique status as human communicative beings created in the image of God. For, to be created in the image of God, and yet not gods ourselves, means, at least as early as Genesis, that we are stewards – stewards of Another's possession, of God's creation, and especially of the crown of that creation: human beings.

What difference does a “stewardly” orientation to communication make in practice? The following account of the difference between a path and a road helps us here.

The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.

I first read this passage a few years ago. Within moments of putting it aside (an essay by Wendell Berry), it occurred to me, with great excitement, how helpful this could be for thinking about the ethics of communication. The writer is reflecting on an unfortunate slice of the history of his own hometown. In the process, his observation on the difference between a path and a road commends itself richly to us. From the outset, we see the concern of the author is a matter of stewardship: the issue in his mind is whether a path or a road more fittingly reflects a posture of stewardship toward the world and its peoples.

Regardless of what we might think ourselves about paths and roads, let’s not miss the point. The author recognizes that the difference in posture toward the land – stewardship or consumption – has different expressions in practice – a path or a road. And the way the author goes on to describe those differences is immediately applicable, I suggest, to the two basic ways God's image bearers choose to communicate to each other: in both cases we could say the issue is a matter of acting on the goal of communication.

For the road-communicator, there is a definite goal to be reached: he wants some result, some action, some agreement, some decision to come at the end of his communicative work, and his method of getting there is in the interests of simplicity and speed to that end. So confident is he of the rightness of his goal, he is destructively negligent all along the way: he paves his road in a straight line over and through all that is in his way. He forgets, practically if not theoretically, that he is relating to a fellow image-bearer of God, one who has “topographical” contours as a person – a story, ideas, interests, perspectives, wisdom, and concerns. The road-communicator runs right over these, and maybe even flattens them and destroys them – and, of course, the person – in the process of reaching his goal. An employer might run over his employee to turn him or her into a robot who simply does the employer's bidding. A husband may “work” a conversation in whatever way he needs to in order to reach the bed with his wife later. A father may crush his daughter by listening only half-heartedly to her stories, if it means he thus earns – with his few moments of pretended attention – hours of peace and quiet later.

A path-communicator, however, is fundamentally different. And the roots of this difference reach as far down as possible, as deep as the very notion of what people are and what people are for. His goal, too, controls his method: unlike the road–paving communicator, a path-communicator has the simplest “goal” possible, a goal which never changes no matter the topic or question or concern he is exploring in conversation with the other person. His ultimate goal is, simply, the other person. His determined goal is not tied to a decision or agenda with which he has started off on his communicative quest. The other person is the goal, personally, and this is love.

Having this radically different and intimately personal goal, the path-communicator is attentive to rather than dismissive of the topographical contours of the other person's life and world. Since he knows from the start that God created that person in the way that he did for good reason, he knows one only honors the Creator in communication if one shows practical honor to the complex beauty of his creation. He has no interest, therefore, in removing that person’s “hills” and “streams” and reshaping the landscape; he honors the hills and goes around them, accounting for them all along the way, not through them or over them. In other words, he is thoughtful and considerate, because he communicates with his eyes and ears always open, and most of all because he takes the time to learn the terrain.

The Challenges for the PathCommunicator

Learning the terrain: so much depends on this. The path the loving communicator makes is, as all paths are, the result of long-term familiarity, something which is impossible without time, experience, and attentive study. Of course, this familiarity is the fruit of love for the actual person in front of him or at his side, rather than only the idea of the person, and is the fruit, too, of his having no other immediate or long-term goal in his communication than that other person.

This, for the path-communicator, is what loving God and neighbor looks like: forge a path through familiar terrain rather than push to the right or left in order to force a road through. The issue here, then, is not one of blind agreement or losing (or gaining) control. Instead, in communication, we ask ourselves before we speak a word: are we paving a road to get to where we want, or are we creating a path through loving familiarity and knowledgeable interaction? Both approaches end with a result, the former destructively and foolishly, the latter constructively and wisely. For the road–paving communicator, the hills and mountains, streams and rivers, are expected to make their way for him, to bow to his instructions and direction, and, to put it bluntly, get out of the way. As in other abusive violations of stewardship, perhaps he confuses his approach with “dominion” over creation as God’s authoritative vice–regent, tragically mixing dominion with destruction. Perhaps he even dares to believe it’s the duty of the hills and streams to move over, after all. So the hard question should be asked in communication, what is my goal here? Am I seeking to pave over the other person to get to where I want to go, or am I loving them instead, conforming my communicative strategy to my interest in their well–being, God’s glory, and the way of wisdom?

Not that any of this comes easily, of course. The dark truth is that we are all, as sinners, naturally road–paving communicators. Sanctification requires for all of us the kind of Spirit–wrought reversal, in Christ, from road–paving to loving path–communication. And the process of sanctification here is difficult. The cost can seem to be quite high. For instance, road–paving communicators, preoccupied with power, control, and self-preservation are predictably reticent to submit to the way of loving interaction, thinking that losing control means losing one’s voice and security. But, despite the display of what looks like strength, only the most insecure – those who have road-paving as their default mode of communicative life – would assume that they lose themselves and their own ideas in the process of such loving relationality. And of all communicators, a husband is least free of all people to think that way because he knows from the start that his wife is his needed complement, not his competitor. Complementarity, as a starting point, eliminates the possibility of road–paving communication, for it carries with it the convictions that (1) one does not have a goal other than the other person, and that (2) one cannot know what is the best of hoped–for outcomes or results without the benefit of that other person’s needed role. If husbands truly believe they need their wives to make up for many of their blind spots and faults and sins, there is no possibility of a road–paving approach to strategy in communication. In short, the difference here is not a matter of agreement or disagreement, but about loving or selfish communication – and this, ultimately, is a matter of the Spirit or the flesh, the new creation or the old, the lordship of Christ or the bondage of sin. And where sin abounds, the good news for the humble penitent is that grace abounds still more.

Our last words pull from a moving scene from Disney-Pixar’s Cars:

 Sally: Yeah. Back then, cars came across the country a whole different way.

McQueen: How do you mean?

Sally: Well, the road didn't cut through land like that Interstate. It moved with the land, you know? It rose, it fell, it curved. Cars didn't drive on it to make a great time. They drove on it to have a great time.

McQueen: Well, what happened?

Sally: The town got bypassed just to save ten minutes of driving.