Saturday, August 27, 2011

On Being Able to Ask Directions

I've spent the past few weeks vacationing with my family. Because we had room in our van, we also brought along our older son's good friend, who turned 16 during our travels. Through hours of car rides, and days spent sharing living spaces together, I have discovered a lot about myself and the chasm that often exists between my generation (I am approaching 50) and that of our sons'.

The most obvious sign of difference happened on our very first night of driving. We drove two hours north to New Haven, Connecticut, to give us a head start on the long drive to New Brunswick, Canada. When we encountered an unexpected road block on our way to our hotel, my husband called the hotel on his cell phone. We had ended up in downtown New Haven, several miles from our destination. We discovered New Haven was full of detours from the considerable road construction happening there.

It took us about 30 minutes, but with the hotel manager guiding us over the phone, we managed to make it to the hotel. As we pulled in close to midnight, the manager was waving his arms at the hotel's entrance, a big smile on his face. We shook his hand and began unpacking the car.

What felt to my husband and me as a great success and a moment of beautiful human connection was met with confusion by our teenaged son and his friend. "Nobody asks for directions any more," the boy said. Both boys added that they were perplexed why we bothered with the phone call and that we should have simply plugged the destination into a GPS or an Ipod touch.

It was late; both my husband and I were cranky and tired and felt annoyed by what felt like a criticism. (It ran through my head that a GPS isn't going to tell us construction delays, blocked roads and detours) So we didn't say anything. But over the next few days, I mulled what the boys had said and felt and perceived. I have come to several realizations.

The first is this: with all the promise of technology, it is easy to lull ourselves into the belief that we don't need to ask for directions - to a hotel or to any place else, whether it be a physical space or a spiritual space. We easily can labor under the illusion of self-sufficiency.

I don't blame my sons and their friends for this; they have grown up in a completely customized world. I learned during over the vacation that they think radio stations are "useless" (just pick your own tunes and put them on your Ipod) and that public libraries and bookstores are "unnecessary" (just download a book on your phone or your kindle).

In some ways, they are right to consider the ways we adults manage the world is irrelevant to how they are living and will live in the future. The jobs they will take and the careers they will pursue don't even exist yet. Compare their position to mine 30 years ago, when I was making my way through college and the work world. The career paths I considered were well known to my parents. My own parents were able to point me to friends and acquaintances in various professional fields and I was able to talk with the adults and even to watch them at work.

So what, exactly, are we passing on to our children? I would have to say it is a condition of their hearts. I want my sons to know that the world is filled with beauty and adventure and that a loving presence willed them into being and is guiding their lives. I want them to know that no matter how efficient the technological tools at their disposal, that not only should they be unafraid to ask directions, but also that they should. Their fellow travelers have much to teach them on the paths to their destinies.

I was moved, for example, to watch the ease with which our son and his friend manipulate technology. Our guest modified a set of cheap speakers he had bought, improving the sound by ripping out the drivers and using empty soda cans attached with my son's bicycle tape. He showed me how to use my laptop more fully and efficiently and he offered to show me how to use Photoshop.

Another realization I have come to over the past few weeks is that I need to be open to asking our sons and their friends for directions, too.


  1. My son once had a job interview with an investment bank. The interviewer pointed to the TV which was playing CNBC and asked, "if I asked you to find out the name of the person being interviewed right now, how would you do it?" My son replied, "I would look up the website for the network and see if they had a list of guests for this segment." The interviewer followed up, "What if you couldn't find it on the internet?" My son replied, "I would call the network and ask." The interviewer said, "excellent. Too many of your generation are afraid to ever pick up the telephone and place a call."

    A pastor friend told us years ago of an old Chinese proverb which basically said a culture in which the knowledge of the younger generation exceeds that of the older is cursed. He thought the way our younger generation excels at technology far beyond the older generation would wind up being a harmful thing for society. At the time I wasn't so sure, but now I often wonder.

    Hope you had a wonderful vacation and arrive home safely with no impact from Irene.

  2. Sandy: I agree with you. And...there is knowledge as in data points and knowledge as in wisdom. As much as a young person can accumulate facts, there is the ability to apply them to real life. That is where the value of age comes in.

    So...the knowledge of the young cannot exceed that of the old, assuming the old are awake and open to the reality of life before them.

    It's raining like crazy in northern Maine but we hope the clouds clear by Monday. Blessings Sandy!

  3. I really loved this post, Allison. I am not very good at picking up the phone myself! It is, quite honestly, my last resort. Maybe because I'm a closet introvert but also maybe because I've grown through college and my adult life so far to become to dependent on technology. I'm getting better because you're absolutely right...we need to be brave enough to ask when we need help.