There are many roads and paths that we and other people take in the journey of life. They rarely exist in isolation. Most of the roads we take will include others and will also intersect with other roads that other people are taking. How we think and respond—personally and as members of each and every family, organization, community and nation that we are a part of—makes a difference, small or large, in our own lives and the lives of others; and our Earth, too.
We are, in fact, even when we deny it, individually responsible for the choices we make and the outcomes of those choices. We may have become mature enough to choose to be aware and accountable for our choices, and the resulting outcomes, or we might be childish enough to want to avoid, deny, and even seek to prevent being accountable.
The environments we live in will make a difference, too. Crossroads can be cluttered or uncluttered, crowded or empty, quiet or noisy. They may be few and far between or frequent and close together. They can be unmarked or marked with warning signs. They might be natural events on land, sea or sky, human-made objects and conditions, or combinations of both. We probably encounter so many crossroads in life that we may not even pause our intents, habits, or preconceived motivations to think about them; they’re just impulsively thought to be inconveniences that interrupt our flow as we’re traveling to where we want to go at the moment and slow us down.
And yet a crossroad encounter might offer a life-changing harm or benefit. I came to one crossroad that would have changed everything if I simply went ahead with what I had intended to do. I had been home for a holiday and was driving back to college in a relatively undeveloped part of upstate New York. It was past midnight. There had been no traffic on the road for miles. It was dark and I was tired. Ahead was a crossroad with a traffic light; it was turning to red; I was the only traffic in sight; I was annoyed; I wanted to keep going; but I stopped. Nobody else was there, in any direction; just me and the empty road.
I kept staring at the red light, saying “turn green, turn green, turn green.” I just wanted to keep going. Finally, after what seemed to be a very long time, I saw the traffic signal in the crossroad begin to change; the green light for the crossroad in the other direction changed to yellow for several seconds, and then to red. Then the light for my direction changed from red to green. The light was bright and silent in the quiet, cold, dark night. Now I can go. I’m aware of that. But I just sit there, looking at the green light in front of me. Maybe two seconds go by. I say to myself, “Why am I just sitting here, I can go!” So I take my foot off the brake and start moving it to the accelerator; Whoosh!! A huge tanker truck suddenly roars across the road in front of me—seemingly from nowhere to now here—rocketing through the crossroad at full speed; through the red light without slowing down; no brake lights showing! My car shakes from the blast of air punched aside by the heavy truck racing by in front of me! If I had entered the intersection as soon as my light turned green, I would have been broadsided by that tanker truck and most certainly killed.
I said, “Thank you, God” that I didn’t just impulsively drive into that crossroad as soon as I had the green light. Afterwards, I’ve wondered why I just sat there for a couple of seconds after the light turned green; I was aware that it was green and I could drive on, but I just stayed still; until the truck roared safely by.
Individuals, Organizations, Economies and Entire Nations Can Come To A Crossroad
One day, years later, in a Bible Study on the Book of Jeremiah, I came to a passage calling on a whole people to be very careful of their attitude and behavior and notice when they are at a crossroad in life. Actually, I never thought about there being a crossroad for a whole nation to pay attention to—what their behavior is creating and where the current direction is taking them as individuals and as a nation back in Jeremiah’s time, some 2,500 years ago. This is what it said:
Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.” Also I raised up sentinels for you: “Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!” But they said, “We will not give heed.” — Jeremiah 6:16-17 NRSV
Now my curiosity is raised. What are the crossroads we should pause at and carefully consider about any current and ancient wisdom paths; to ask where the good way lies, where we can go to find rest for our souls; and then be willing to take those paths in life because that’s where the arriving will be good?
It seems, in the Bible story, that even in Jeremiah’s turbulent and dangerous time, as well as in our own time, people could and would refuse to pause and contemplate what they’re doing, to carefully look for and take paths that would lead to both individual well-being and the well-being of the nation, the commonwealth.
Crossroads Can Offer Life-Changing Possibilities
But what are those ancient paths that Jeremiah was referring to? Perhaps, for the people of his time, facing grave, difficult, uncertain and disruptive circumstances in their lives, Jeremiah was hinting back 600 years to the time of Moses and the Exodus where, as stated in Deuteronomy, it was written that Moses had said:
This commandment that I’m commanding you today isn’t too much for you, it’s not out of your reach. It’s not on a high mountain — you don’t have to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level and explain it before you can live it. And it’s not across the ocean — you don’t have to send sailors out to get it, bring it back, and then explain it before you can live it. No. The word is right here and now — as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. Just do it!
Look at what I’ve done for you today: I’ve placed in front of you Life and Good, Death and Evil. And I command you today: Love God, your God. Walk in his ways. Keep his commandments, regulations, and rules so that you will live, really live, live exuberantly, blessed by God, your God, in the land you are about to enter and possess.
But I warn you: If you have a change of heart, refuse to listen obediently, and willfully go off to serve and worship other gods, you will most certainly die. You won’t last long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you today: I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love God, your God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him. Oh yes, he is life itself, a long life settled on the soil that God, your God, promised to give your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. —Deuteronomy 30:11-20, THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language
Later on in the Book of Jeremiah I came to another passage, one that was related to the whole nation pausing at a major crossroad in life and deciding what way to live as a people that would lead to the good life. The nation had been defeated in battle and the people were being divided and sent into exile. Jeremiah told them that God wanted them to be nonviolent, peaceful, and cooperative:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
—Jeremiah 29:5-7, NRSV
This was kind of shocking to many. Violent action and the threat of violence was the accepted way of life in the world. Everyone knew that “even in nature” animals survived by hunting and killing their prey. Peace could come only from a strong defense; a willingness and ability to go to war was thought to be common sense. The thought of God’s people being defeated in battle and then being expected by their God to be peaceful and cooperative with “the enemy” in defeat was quite controversial, to say the least. It was expected, in the world, that one’s God would answer the people’s call and provide victory over the enemy for them. This Jeremiah-way, this loving way, of looking at the world was not a happy crossroad experience for many.
To Seek the Welfare of Your City
Although I was certified to be a technology-education school teacher, the career path I chose to follow was in chamber of commerce and organization management. Chambers of Commerce were voluntary not-for-profit corporations created by local business people to focus on total community development and quality of life in the community. That seemed to be a good path for me. The chamber of commerce profession was interested in taking parallel paths that included working for healthy economic climates and healthy qualities of life. The leaders believed that in order to have a good economy the whole community had to do well and be well. That was considered practical common sense and not utopian thinking. To me, that fit well with my Christian formation. It called for a “dual citizenship” of spiritual and physical realms, I thought.
A dozen years later, coming to another crossroad in my life, I took a path as director of the Chamber of Commerce in Lawrence, Massachusetts. This was a couple of decades after the City lost its manufacturing base, with thousands of good-paying jobs and its economic health, following the end of World War II. Four decades before that, Lawrence suffered the infamous crossroad experience called the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912. Christopher Klein, in a September 3, 2012 History.com article, reported:
The power looms that thundered inside the cotton weaving room of the Everett Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, suddenly fell silent on January 11, 1912. When a mill official demanded to know why workers were standing motionless next to their machines, the explanation was simple: “Not enough pay.”
The workers who had opened their pay envelopes that afternoon discovered their weekly wages had been reduced by 32 cents. A newly enacted Massachusetts law had reduced the workweek of women and children from 56 to 54 hours, but mill owners, unlike in the past, cut worker’s wages proportionally. For workers who only averaged $8.76 per week, every penny was precious, and 32 cents made the difference between eating a meal or going hungry.
Lawrence, known as “Immigrant City,” was a true American melting pot with residents from 51 nations wedged into seven square miles. Although strikers lacked a common culture and language, they remained united in a common cause. The social networks of the day—soup kitchens, ethnic organizations, community halls—stitched the patchwork of strikers together. And once news of the walkout went viral in newspapers around the country, American laborers took up collections for the strikers and local farmers arrived with food donations.
Mill owners and city leaders hired men to foment trouble and even planted dynamite in an attempt to discredit strikers. Lawrence’s simmering cauldron finally bubbled over on January 29, when a mob of strikers attacked a streetcar carrying workers who didn’t honor the picket line. That afternoon, as police battled strikers, an errant gunshot struck and killed Anna LoPizzo. The following day, 18-year-old John Ramey died after being stabbed in the shoulder by a soldier’s bayonet.
With the city on a hair trigger, striking families sent 119 of their children out of harm’s way to Manhattan on February 10 to live with relatives or, in some cases, complete strangers who could provide food and a safe shelter. A cheering crowd of 5,000 greeted the children at Grand Central Terminal, and after a second trainload arrived from Lawrence the following week, the children paraded down Fifth Avenue. The “children’s exodus” proved to be a publicity coup for the strikers, and Lawrence authorities intended to halt it. When families brought another 46 children bound for Philadelphia to the city’s train station on February 24, the city marshal ordered them to disperse. When defiant mothers still tried to get their children aboard the train and resisted the authorities, police dragged them by the hair, beat them with clubs and arrested them as their horrified children looked on in tears.
The national reaction was visceral and marked a turning point in the Bread and Roses Strike. President Taft asked his attorney general to investigate, and Congress began a hearing on the strike on March 2. Striking workers, including children who dropped out of school at age 14 or younger to work in the factories, described the brutal working conditions and poor pay inside the Lawrence mills. A third of mill workers, whose life expectancy was less than 40 years, died within a decade of taking their jobs. If death didn’t come slowly through respiratory infections such as pneumonia or tuberculosis from inhaling dust and lint, it could come swiftly in workplace accidents that took lives and limbs. Fourteen-year-old Carmela Teoli shocked lawmakers by recounting how a mill machine had torn off her scalp and left her hospitalized for seven months.
After the children’s testimony, public tide turned in favor of the strikers for good. The mill owners were ready for a deal and agreed to many of the workers’ demands. The two sides agreed to a 15-percent wage hike, a bump in overtime compensation and a promise not to retaliate against strikers. On March 14, the nine-week strike ended as 15,000 workers gathered on Lawrence Common shouted their agreement to accept the offer. Only five sounded their dissents.
The Bread and Roses Strike was not just a victory for Lawrence workers. By the end of March, 275,000 New England textile workers received similar raises, and other industries followed suit. https://www.history.com/news/the-strike-that-shook-america
Having grown up and worked in New York City, I was familiar with the geography. My father was a child in New York City when the Bread and Roses Strike took place and those 119 children were brought in for safety from Lawrence. Four decades later the textile mills were mostly gone from Lawrence, in pursuit of paths to lower costs and higher monetary profits; and after nearly three more decades the City left behind had not recovered its manufacturing base and economy. It was yet another crossroad and nobody knew which way to go. Leaders just kept doing what they knew how to do even though it wasn’t working anymore.
That’s when I came to Lawrence to work with the Chamber of Commerce; and there was a new mayor in the City, too. We both considered this to be a crossroad time for the city and we stopped to ask ourselves what we and the community really wanted and what path would take us there. The answer to that question was that we were seeking a path with two complementary outcomes: a better quality of life and a better quantity of good-paying jobs with good benefits. Since money, jobs, goods and services, the economy, communities and nations are all invented and built by people—they are not hunted and gathered—why not design and build the right ways and means to create what we really need and want?
One path we started to take was to build a new way of managing organizations that would work well in a globalized economy. This would require a change from top-down, command and control styles, to a more systematic, broadly measured, participatory management style based on employee and customer needs, that was focused on quality of goods and service and community life, with a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits. Some did, but many leaders did not want to change their ways of doing business and go this new way.
Perhaps the Arts Could Inspire Our Attitudes and Direction
After coming to work in Lawrence, I discovered that two well-known artists had their roots in Lawrence and history teaches that artists often have a significant impact on community and society. One such artist was the poet, Robert Frost. Another was the composer, music director and playwright, Leonard Bernstein.
Robert Frost graduated from Lawrence High School in 1892, where he was co-valedictorian with his future wife, Elinor White; he also wrote the school song. Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes and was asked by President John F. Kennedy to write and recite a poem at his inauguration. He became known as the unofficial poet laureate of the United States.
I really like one of his most famous poems, “The Road Not Taken,” which speaks about coming to a crossroad in life and taking some time to contemplate the possibilities of one’s choosing.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Yogi Berra has been quoted as saying, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Robert Frost talked about contemplating both paths of those forks in the road, those crossroads we come to in life, deciding where each choice will lead, and then taking the right one. That may be the one less traveled by. That’s essentially a leadership function of perceiving what the right path is, not only for a short-term profit but for the long-term gain, that all may gain.
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1918, and went on to become a composer, music director of the New York Philharmonic and a well-known playwright interested in justice, economic and human rights. I can still recall the excitement on August 26, 1983, when Bernstein returned to Lawrence for a City-wide celebration of his 65th birthday. His two popular plays were West Side Story and On the Town. With both Lawrence and New York City known as immigrant cities, West Side Story, with its theme of human attitudes around race, age and social prejudices, was certainly appropriate and thought-provoking.
Leonard Bernstein’s first symphony was called, interestingly, Jeremiah, the same Jeremiah that we see in the Bible that I quoted above. To learn more about it, the Bernstein website tells us:
Leonard Bernstein’s first symphony was Jeremiah (1942). Jeremiah was a major Hebrew prophet of great suffering who warned the Israelites that their sinfulness would lead to disaster, and his prophecy was fulfilled when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE.
Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony would bring him great success…the New York Music Critics Circle voted it outstanding new classical work of the season…Jeremiah was broadcast on seventy radio stations across the country and…Bernstein conducted it in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Detroit, Rochester, Prague and Jerusalem.
With Jeremiah, Bernstein not only established himself as a major American symphonist, he began a musical and dramatic exploration of a theme that would continue to inspire many of his major works throughout his career. “The work I have been writing all my life,” he said in 1977, “is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith.” While Jeremiah offers only consolation and not a solution to this crisis, Bernstein’s creative journey through The Age of Anxiety (1949), Kaddish (1963), Chichester Psalms (1965) and, finally, Mass (1971), led him to a profound conclusion—that a renewal of faith in modern times requires a return to innocence, a shedding of the trappings of dogma and orthodoxy, and a fundamental belief in our common humanity.
Designing Roads That Move Us Toward Quality-of-Life For All and Then Building Those Roads
One way or path in life is designed to create Quantity—more and more things. It can be blind to anything else. Another path is designed to lead us to Quality—better lives and ways of life. Sometimes these paths are complementary but often the Quantity Path becomes the dominant super highway where the racing traffic thinks it doesn’t have time for Quality of Life “detours.” Its traffic is obsessed with a “time is money” imperative and envisions no other way of life; quality of life is considered a utopian thought, a too-expensive naive pursuit in the “real world” of hard knocks.
Building Roads That Civilization Moves On Is Like Having Dual Citizenship
One type of crossroad we frequently encounter in life, which Jeremiah is clearly pointing to, involves the road we take as citizens, leaders and managers of various organizations and nations in life. We may choose also to be citizens of the kingdom of God and choose to be citizens of one or more nations on earth. We may also choose to be “citizens” of a political party, a particular profession or vocation in life, a particular religion or philosophy of life. Sometimes this multiple and complex citizenship brings us to a crossroad where we’re asked to make a choice of both timing and direction. Do we choose to follow the path of God, of Christ? Do we follow the way of the world? Is there a path we can make or take that allows us to exercise a dual citizenship of a spiritual kingdom of God and a worldly kingdom on earth? A way that creates an abundance of life, a good life, for all? A way that is real and not just wishful thinking? A way of being an image of God in the world?
Money, Politics, Economics, Governments and Religions Are Roads and Crossroads
The people of the world have built many roads and crossroads over the years and some new expressways, in the past seventy-five years, as population has tripled from 2.5 to roughly 7.5 billion people. That’s about five billion more people living today than there were during World War II.
The practical impact of this unplanned and rapid population explosion was a global acceleration in the speed of change. Also, a rapid increase in production and consumption happened as a highly competitive globalized economy evolved. But at a foundational level, social and economic systems had been designed early in the Industrial Revolution to inspire and reward quantity of production and encourage quantity of consumption. To do this, systems and cultures emphasizing education, work, competition and winning were designed. This took place worldwide. Instead of a slower-paced domestic economy with a typical 9-5, five-day work week, the new economy was expected to be like a super-highway moving ever-increasing volumes of traffic 24/7/365 with everyone expected to strive to be on it, service it, or be left behind!
This new socioeconomic lifestyle has created a few winners and a lot of losers. It has also created positives of new knowledge and technology, but also negatives of environmental degradation, damaging weather extremes, political and social division, corruption and discrimination, mental and physical illness, economic injustice, and a lack of well-being in much of the world.
Money, politics, economics, markets, cities, nations, governments and religions are, in effect, cultural roads and pathways—with many crossroads—that people have built over the years, in the hope of living better; they are not acts of nature or matters of scarcity and limited natural resources. They are invented and constructed from human thought, word, and deed and many of these crossroads are destructive to peoples’ lives; not constructive.
As people all over the world have built roads and crossroads over the years, they were initially unmarked. Traffic was slow and people could see others coming and would cross safely. When the flow increased and a crossroad became dangerous, warnings and traffic signals were created to improve safety. It would be good to do that with our various social systems’ roads and crossroads to see the dangerous places; then come together to redesign and rebuild them to increase safety and well-being. We can go where no one has gone before. But not everyone has a desire to do that. It can offer uncertainty to some and it can be fearful, especially to those who are doing well and prospering in the present systems.
Yet change is happening. It always has; it won’t be stopped. We can, however, lead and manage it wisely, working together to design all of our social systems to include everyone, communicate, encourage and facilitate continuous quality of life improvement in ways that all may gain.
We can recognize that all of our systems can be made to work well for everyone. Some may need to be redesigned and redirected. We may need to change our opinions, thoughts and attitudes about them by first seeing how they have led us to where we are today, understand how they are taking us where we don’t want to go or blocking us from going where we need to be in life. By doing that, we might even envision, for our time and for our legacy, as Robert Frost did, that Somewhere ages and ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.