The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Roads [Chalice]

Presented November 22, 2009, by Marlee Labroo

I'd like to begin with a brief explanation of why I chose to speak about roads, of all things. The direct reason is that I'm on the road a lot, either with my family or school groups, and I enjoy it. For me, it's very meditative and peaceful. Since there's really no way to do homework - especially math homework - in a moving vehicle, I have time for my own thoughts. And while I was thinking on the road, I started thinking about roads and why I like them as much as I do, and then eventually about what larger meaning they have in the world and why anyone might care. So what you're getting today is a regrettably limited overview of how roads have affected the human race, physically and as an idea. I know it sounds a little off-the-wall, but hopefully it will make sense in the end.

I first decided that I liked roads when I was pretty young, maybe five or six, and because I was a kid, it was very much on a physical level. The highway was my first exposure to the world going fast, and I guess I found it really entertaining. I liked how the telephone lines seemed to move smoothly and merge together instead of just hanging there; I liked looking out the window and trying to focus on blades of grass at 65 - or maybe 70 - miles per hour. I liked the rhythm of the wheels on the bumps in the road and the hum of the air rushing by. Also, for me, roads have always been connected to people I love. The first big roadtrip I remember was to visit relatives here in Quincy, for Christmas. And later, I would travel to see my dad, or my cousins in Ohio or Texas. While on the road itself, I always got to stay up late with my mom, and we would play games like "Name Every Single Christmas Carol You Can Think of" and "The Thinking Game", which I thought was possibly the best thing in the world. But there was also a measure of solitude on the road, which is an unfamiliar feeling as a kid. Or at least it was for me. I remember looking out across the dark plains and getting the sensation that they went on forever, and in the distance there would be the light of cities, or stars, or the radio towers pulsing like beacons. So it was quite contemplative, even though the road connected me to the outside world and to other people.

Maybe you can empathize with this sentiment towards the road, but roads were not actually made for fun. Apparently this isn't sufficient reason to do things in the adult world. How the first roads came to be is a point of contention among anthropologists; the generally accepted explanation is that they were adapted from animal trails, but some people doubt that animal trails were consistent enough to serve as an explanation. It seems intuitively sensible that our nomadic ancestors would need roads, as a primary use of roads is to move things and people more easily, and perhaps they instinctively modified the paths of least resistance, which were animal trails. According to the book Ways of the World by M.G. Lay, there is extensive evidence of humans creating their own paths. Extensive as in, quote, "Early European explorers in Africa report having been able to cross the continent from east to west without ever leaving a village-to-village footpath." Planned, geometric roads have been unearthed at some the earliest known sites of human history, like Mohenjo-Daro and Ninevah. The significance of this is that roads have probably been with humans since our beginning as a species. Movement is a characteristic of all life, not just humans, so you can see the roots of wanting to make movement easier. Even more significant, though, is that there may be a genetic basis for wanderlust, for wanting to take to the road. When humans began migrating out of Africa, not all of them went; actually, the number was relatively small. But those who did go had a higher incidence of an allele, the D-4 allele if anyone finds that meaningful, that is associated with risk-taking and novelty-seeking. Stanford University researchers actually made a map of the effects of this gene, and non-native population of a land still have a much higher incidence of this risk-taking gene than say, aboriginal Taiwanese. If anyone's interested in learning more about that, I can refer you to the source, which is a book by Deepak Lal. But the point is that this affinity for the road may even be part of some of our genes.

We can see now what made people build roads, this desire to MOVE, but as the human race developed, so did the complexity of its roads. Take, for example, the Roman Empire, whose conquering and unification of Europe was partly because of their effective use of roads. Roads enabled the Romans to move their military, messages, and products more quickly, which gave them an edge both economically and militarily over their subjects and their enemies. One of the more gruesome instances of using roads to control was the Appian Way. The Appian Way was once the site of the crucifixion of the 6,000 slaves who took part in the revolt of Spartacus. Their bodies were then left along the road to decay for years, sending an unequivocally revolting message to all who passed by. Because roads connected the government, the military, and the people so closely, this is a very intimidating and horrifying political maneuver as much as anything. The Roman government clearly recognized the power it held in roads. And in little ways, that power has branched into the present; we have the saying "All roads lead to Rome", we still use some of the Roman roads-or rather, Europeans do-and they provided a standard for the future to build on.

An example that correlates with the Roman roads is those of the United States during the Civil War. The industrial North had a much more developed system of roads and railways, because it needed a way to ship the products it manufactured. In contrast, the agricultural South had rails of different gauges, and the poorly build roads that existed were often rendered impassable by weather. This proved to be a disadvantage during the Civil War because of the North's ability to move its men where it wanted to, as well as its food and its weaponry. So already, we can see that in terms of survival, it's a better idea to be connected to others than not, although one hopes those connections will be used for something other than war.

For most of us, one of the more culturally relevant examples of roads are the roads of Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1956, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which authorized the construction of the interstate highways we have today. Which seems unremarkable, but consider these new highways in the context of 1950s America. Because of the confluence of cheap fuel and easy credit following WWII, it was easy for people to buy and drive cars. If you add this mix to the cultural polarization of the 1950s-on one hand, you have really straitlaced, traditional conformity, and on the other, the Beat Generation - it precipitates two very different philosophies about the same thing: roads. And, strangely, these two social groups' approaches to the road generally reflected their approach to life, at least to my eyes; I'm sure some of you have more personal experience with the 1950s than I do.

The first image I get of the 50s is the rows of identical houses in Levittown, which is a really blatant manifestation of the conformist values at the time. The return of soldier and "normality" after WWII led to valuing the traditional, nuclear family. Naturally, you need a nice house to put your family in, preferably one that looked like your neighbor's. And you probably had a car, so your house could be in the suburbs instead of the city where you worked. You might also use this car to take your family for outings on the weekend, or if you were a teenager, to go cruising. The point is, the road was subjugated to the home; people valued stability, which is quite understandable after WWII. This desire for stability was solidified economically as well. It's almost meaningless to separate cars, roads, and the revived economy because they all fed off of each other. The auto industry simultaneously created jobs and sold cars, and roads facilitated that demand. And this is where you start tying in consumerism. Cars were a measure of wealth and status; this era was the advent of gas stations and fast food and the like. But what I think is most interesting is that roads were the nebula in which the economic, social, and political merged together, in the form of white flight from the cities. Because of pre-Civil Rights economic inequality, it was mostly white people who could afford cars. Many used their cars to get out of the desegregated cities and into the suburbs. So this was the beginning of urban decay; if you tear the workers and their taxes out of a city in a short amount of time, the void can't be filled immediately. In the meantime, the city breaks down; everyone else who might have stayed flees, and the poorest remain. Also, the government sometimes built roads in such a way as to isolate mostly African-American communities from stores and services; this is a strange case of roads being used to divide instead of connect, and we're still suffering the fallout today.

This closed, conservative attitude becomes significant with contrast, and what better contrast than the Beats? It's kind of rare that you have such a - I hate to put it this way - but such a well-controlled experiment, in how two groups react to the same thing, roads. I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac to prepare for this talk, which is generally accepted to be a thinly fictionalized version of his real-life adventures with Neal Cassady. So, while your paradigm of a mainstream guy in the 50s is the provident father, Sal and Dean are almost parodies of the opposite. A pair of peripatetic parodies. The story is pretty much their rushing across the country whenever the urge strikes them. And these excursions are not particularly planned; there's a lot of hitchhiking, very few maps, they often occur at the expense of someone's maiden aunt . . . but anyway, it's definitely a contrast to mainstream culture. They're pretty unworried about any sort of security; rather than staying on the beaten path, they take to the road. Sal explains their wanderlust not just as escaping something, but also the drive towards something, to some end greater than money or safety. They're always wanted to see something new, hear good jazz, meet someone different-something that struck me about the book was their openness to all kinds of people, no matter their race or religion or whatever. To be on the road to the Beats meant being open to new things. But just like the more mainstream view, Beat lifestyle had its drawbacks. By having so much freedom, they risk insecurity and indirection. And that does come to undo Sal and Dean in the end; they never find what they're looking for. The Beats embodied the conflict between stability and change. They didn't want the rigidness of their society, so they turned to change-change that was, at times, radical and chaotic and drug-induced. It's kind of a pity that the direction of mainstream culture couldn't be combined with the aims of the Beats. They took to the road, but they didn't find what they were looking for.

I do not think that this fortuitous coincidence of worldview and roadview is really a coincidence - if I did, I would not be giving this talk. Rather, the correlation between these two social groups' ideas on roads and their ideas on life indicates that roads have significance to the human race in ways other than survival. They are also a part of our consciousness. For example, the connection between the Beats and the road isn't that surprising, under a microscope. What is weird is the connection between On the Road and The Motorcycle Diaries of Che Guevara. It's true that they are approximate contemporaries, but they are written in totally different cultures in different countries by two men of different background, and of course the roads themselves are different - there was no Federal Highway Act in Peru. But The Motorcycle Diaries are virtually identical to On the Road; it's mostly a summary of Che's journey, with his best friend, and his rather rebellious thoughts on the state of the world at the time. They even share a fondness for alcohol. So, while I cannot dream up a reason for this specific connection between Che and Kerouac, that there is a connection at all demonstrates that the connection the road itself isn't dependent on immediate surroundings.

Of course, using roads as a narrative structure in books and stories is not uncommon. Think of a series like Lord of the Rings that kind of shamelessly uses the idea of going on a journey as an excuse for a story, or at least a plot. In the narrative sense, roads are a massive deus ex machine. They provide a ready-made way for the plot to progress, since the characters are constantly seeing new things, and no one knows what can come next on the road, including the reader. And there's a lot of in-between time riding around on your horse. The Canterbury Tales uses that time to develop the characters, who tell stories. Roads within roads. And interestingly, as the characters reach the end of the road physically, they usually have some kind of moral or spiritual revelation. Or, if it's a book of less literary merit, the plot just ends. But one of the better uses of a road is in the aptly-titled The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which is probably one of the most uplifting books I've ever read. The road begins as the typical narrative motif: a father and son in post-apocalyptic America are desperately following the road in hopes of getting anywhere, and along the way things happen to them and their characters are developed and the theme is supported. But in this case, the road never goes anywhere. The father sets their aim for the sea, but it's just a distraction, something to pin their hopes on. What McCarthy so brilliantly makes clear, though, is that it does not matter that the road goes nowhere. The point of the story is the love and connection between the father and son. So what he's done is to totally integrate the structure of the narrative with the story; the plot does not go anywhere. The character's lives can't really go anywhere. The road does not go anywhere. And yet, no one would wish that it weren't traveled, or that the story is meaningless. Kind of a "Life is a journey, not a destination" idea, but rather more well-written.

This next section is going to deal with the idea of roads metaphysically, to depart rather abruptly from the book discussion - I couldn't think of a smooth segue between the two, sorry. When we consider what a road is, the literal comes to mind first: a highway is a road, a street is a road, a trail is a road. But what really makes a road a road? Is a path across the sea a road? A path in space? The concept of a road requires the union of space and time, which physicists have already dubbed "space-time". The way I came to understand a little bit why the name is "space-time" is that it's impossible to move in space without moving in time. And if you close your eyes and stay really still, time does not stop, I confess to having tried this. Even with this rudimentary idea of what space-time means, it changed how I think about roads. To people, who are physically trapped in time, a road is a way to get between places. But outside of time, as far as that statement is meaningful, roads become a connection. For example, if you are driving to Chicago, being on the road is experienced as a progression of experiences. But if you're just thinking of the road between Chicago and Quincy, you see it as a connection between the two. There's not really a concept of direction. You also see that people on the road consider it as time when you see how transportation springs up around roads. Transportation started linearly; you could travel in one of two directions, back and forth or sideways. And with this kind of transportation, we made our roads take less and less time; you start on foot, then there are horses, then cars and trains and so forth. Then you have what I'm going to incorrectly call a quantum leap; because of the invention of planes, you can now travel in three directions, in the third dimension: back and forth, sideways, and up and down. One of the first things military pilots had to learn was to look not just the traditional around, but also up and down. So we continue to refine the plane, into jets and space shuttles, which travel faster and in tougher environments. The next big thing - or so I gather from sci-fi books - is supposed to be faster than light travel, which could distort time, and time is sometimes called the 4th dimension. So if that ever happens, it's going to totally revolutionize our idea of roads. "No, you have to slow down or you'll run into me yesterday!" I think that the reason we don't think of roads in space so much as on the ground beneath our feet is because we started with the ground-type, and it's difficult to think about anything else. You look at calculus, which is kind of the math-language of motion and roads, and we only have formal linear ideas of motion and roads. Well, at the level I'm at, although my teacher drops tantalizing hints about fractals and non-Euclidean geometry. The point is that the lack of formal language, maybe because of the difficulty of conceptualizing and representing these kinds of roads, means that we stick mostly to linear roads. Although I suppose it could also be that the difficulty lead to the lack of formal language. So it will be interesting to see how progression in our understanding of time will change our ideas of roads . . . and our ideas of the universe and physics and all of that stuff.

I wouldn't be so obscenely interested in roads if they weren't significant and useful to us as conscious people, which you may be doubting right about now. But you can hopefully see how roads have helped us survive, and some of the characteristics that are useful in defining them, although maybe that doesn't rouse spiritual fulfillment in you. Oranges also contribute to our survival, but I have not yet used the term "spiritual fulfillment" with respect to an orange. But I might use it with roads, because roads are interesting for their use as a metaphor. First, though, I have to go on a tangent about metaphors themselves, because I have a bone to pick with them . . . the school definition of a metaphor is "a comparison that does not use 'like' or 'as'", to contrast them with similes. But in real terms, it's a pretty meaningless definition, and it's led to much abuse of metaphors. "The clouds were frolicking ponies." There's also the fallacy that if part of a metaphor holds - if parts of things have similar properties, then the rest are correlated. Like the Monty Python skit, where the witch is a duck: the witch is wood because she's supposed to burned, and wood floats, and ducks also float, therefore the weight of the witch should equal the weight of the duck. The reason I have such a problem with this kind of reasoning is that it's often used in less innocuous ways that witch-burning.

But this isn't so much of a tangent after all, because a good metaphor is a way to get from one idea to another. A metaphor is a road to get from one idea to another. The primary way we understand new things is to connect them to what we already know. So what was initially so infuriating to me, that metaphors make a seemingly random connection between two things, is actually one of their greatest strengths. A metaphor is a way to make what resounds in our own minds reverberate in the minds of other, speaking metaphorically. You see this a lot with the Metaphysical Poets; they would often use a physical thing, like a drop of dew, to stand for something ethereal and confusing, like a soul. So these metaphors are also a way to connect what can be a cold, impersonal world to human existence, sometimes because of a human-centric attitude as much as understanding - "metaphorical" conceit, if you will. This is why people are so annoyed with clichés; they're just old metaphors that have lost their snap and connection to reality, and now feel irritatingly random and unnecessary. Because even though metaphors will take you to a meaning, as a road will, it's not always significant that the connection is between two specific things. Roads can be kind of arbitrary; at the time, it may be very important to you that a road connects specifically Quincy and Chicago, but it's not actually meaningful that Quincy and Chicago are the things connected. It's not important to the road that it connects Chicago and Quincy.

Now: a metaphor is a road, but a road is also a metaphor. In that last part, the road was a metaphor for a metaphor. To quote Salman Rushdie, "Reality can have metaphorical content, that does not make it less real". Real roads can be used as a metaphor for all kinds of things; one I started thinking about in Driver's Ed of all places was ethics. Literally, there's a big difference between being ethical on the road as someone who knows how to drive, and someone who doesn't. In our world, I think that denying yourself in favor of someone else is viewed as polite, but on the road, it's different. Before I drove, when I walked, I thought it was polite to let someone go before you at a stop sign. But it's really just confusing and kind of annoying, because you're not conforming to the rules that the drivers expect. And yet at the same time, letting someone get into line through thick traffic - which we have a lot of in Quincy - is one of the really nice things you can do. Roads give us a metaphor for ethics that isn't absolute; it's adaptable to the situation. I think we perceive a conflict between absolute and relative rightness, but if you look at it through the road, we can have the absolute value of being considerate without limiting the specific situation; it allows our absolute values to be relative to what's going on. And people are surprisingly ethical on the road; it's kind of interesting to see that when rules matter, for the sake of surviving, people sober up pretty quickly. I guess there are also surprisingly rude people on the road - we've all be subject to or the object of road rage - but it's really kind of remarkable that anyone gets anywhere at all.

Now getting to the metaphor. What we've seen literally on the road are the ethics of how people interact to survive, and it applies metaphorically on a large scale. You have all of these drivers on the road of just existing, trying not to run into each other and to communicate their intentions. Right now, we're having to make room for more and more drivers, as third-world countries get off the horse and into cars. This increased number of drivers increases the likelihood of interaction, and you have a choice of communicating or crashing. The thing is, we're also moving very, very fast; the Internet has accelerated our rate of life so that we must face more information without having any more time to think about it. There's a reason it's called the Internet superhighway, although I suppose that might not be precisely it. Since no one is going to slow down or go back to horses, because that would be a bad choice unless everyone simultaneously did, the key to surviving in this world is communication and empathy, considering how other people are thinking and acting. This way, even when someone makes a mistake in existing or driving, as they inevitably will, sometimes we can still avert a crash.

But to take it back to a more personal level and possibly to approach something remotely religious - I suppose this is church, after all - let's look at the road as a metaphor for individuals, and their journeys in life. This is a pretty common metaphor - all the time you hear things like "the road of life" or "choosing your path", and-even though this is so common it doesn't feel like a metaphor - the "way" to do something . The Robert Frost poem comes to mind . . . "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both" . . . The Road Less Traveled. And you can kind of see through that poem how we're all set on this road, and having to make choices about our direction and our fellow travelers without really having a map or a concrete idea of where we're going, which goes back to our being stuck in time. No one really knows where we're headed. So we have to accept that we're on the road, and kind of like the Beats, that's going to require being open to new things, and accepting that sometimes you might not end up where you wanted to go. You might change. One thing that very diverse different religious traditions have in common is the idea of going on a journey and being changed internally. Native Americans went on spirit quests; Jesus wandered in the desert and found his true faith in God; Buddha wandered from the safety of his home to seek enlightenment. Most of us don't go on journeys quite so literally, but a road is a pertinent metaphor, especially as Unitarians. Doug Muder used it a year or so ago in a really interesting talk he gave about explaining Unitarianism. He described Unitarianism as a caravan, in which not everyone is taking the same road, but no one's headed in the opposite direction. And even though we don't have a distinct idea of where we're going, most of us accept that we're on the road at all, and we believe that if we take to the road, we'll get somewhere. In the end, we cannot fully understand the road. We are not historians of the road, or analyzers of the road, or engineers of the road. We are wanderers of the road.

©2009 Marlee Labroo

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Labroo, Marlee 2009. Roads, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20091122.shtml (accessed December 14, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.