I have been traveling the same path to work for almost 20 years. I go north from my suburban home to the city where my office is. Just shy of downtown, there is a split where two lanes go to the left and two go to the right. I take the left branch, which immediately puts me on the left side of four very busy lanes . . . with the next right exit being the one I need to take . . . during rush hour, when all four lanes are packed.
In all the years I have taken this route, I have learned to pay attention to the smallest signals given by the other drivers. Those signals range from the most obvious (the turn signal) to the least obvious (a slight adjustment in speed or a smidgen of change in their front wheels or a particular type of glance) and include everything in between (like hand motions or continually looking over their shoulder or staring down neighboring drivers.) Though not infallible, those signals have proven to be extremely reliable. In fact, I’d estimate that more than 90% of the time, I can predict where a driver is headed after having seen only the first, very smallest signal.
Few if any of my fellow commuters really think about the fact that I am watching them carefully. Of course, they are watching for signals too, but they aren’t thinking about the process. They are just going down the roadway doing what comes naturally to them. Everything makes sense to each individual driver, and every driver is independent of the other drivers.
Not only do the signals tell me how I can get to my destination safely, they also tell me who is going with me, and who isn’t. Many times I even get a really good idea of which drivers will not take my regular exit, but will take the next exit, which is another way to get downtown. And I am also often able to tell who is not going downtown at all, but just passing through, on the way to somewhere far off.
One morning recently, as I entered the busy four-lane stretch from the left and was about to start my careful move to the right, I saw a friend from work already in the far right lane, just a bit ahead of me. And then I saw my friend glance left in a certain way. It was just a small thing. It only took a moment. But in that half second I realized my friend would not be going my way.
As I continued to watch, I thought I might see a signal that my friend would take the next exit to reach our building, but the signal I got indicated something entirely different. It told me that my friend would not exit there either. I then realized with regret that I would not be enjoying my friend’s company at work that morning, and maybe not for the whole day. My friend apparently was not just taking a different route to work, but was not going to work at all. I asked myself, was it merely an out-of-office meeting? Or could it be a doctor’s appointment – was my friend ill? I also wondered whether my friend was playing hooky – was this indicative of a character flaw I didn’t know about, or the return of a trait I had seen before?
Thinking about it some more, I realized that if I had been in my friend’s car, and had been able to talk my friend into exiting at the usual place, my friend would not have been interested in skipping the meeting, or be any less sick, or any less a flawed employee, or any less interested in skipping work (or whatever the situation was). In other words, convincing someone “not to send the signal” is useless. It has nothing to do with the underlying problem.
But all my presumptions or concerns aside, there is one thing I know. The two tiny signals I got – the ones that told me my friend would not show up at the office that morning – were dead on. My friend was indeed absent. Those two small signals were “early warnings” just like the thousands of others I had relied on for all those years I had been negotiating that short stretch of interstate highway safely. My experience had taught me well, and was dependable even though I never saw my friend after I exited, and therefore could not be absolutely positive of my friend’s ultimate destination that day.
Sometimes, in pastoring, in employee supervision, in friendship, or in parenting, we see a signal and it tells us something that our experience has led us to believe is reliable. We might be wrong, but in the vast majority of similar cases in our past, such signals have supported our conclusions. Each signal we see could be the smallest little thing, but we are really pretty sure what it means. Our disappointment or concern happens right when we first see the signal, although it often takes some time to show that the signal was a reliable indicator.
And when we seek to intervene, the employee or friend or child we are speaking to gets all bent out of shape, and thinks we are objecting to the signal, but we aren’t. We are concerned about where they are going.