On Signs

A friend told me a story recently, and it’s one of those stories that is funny at first but, when you think about it, it becomes kind of philosophical, too. It’s story about signs, about looking for signs, and about finding the right road.

My friend was driving along an old country road in Vermont when he came to a crossroads. There were two signs pointing in opposite directions, but they both had the name of his destination written on them: Middlebury. One sign said “Middlebury” and pointed to the left; the other sign said “Middlebury” and pointed to the right. My friend didn’t know which way to turn.

There happened to be an elderly gentleman leaning on a nearby fence, so my friend got out of his car, walked over to the man, and asked, “Does it matter which way I go here?”

The man stared at him blankly for a moment, then said: “Not to me it don’t.”

Our lives are filled with signs. There are street signs, traffic signs, “Keep off the grass” signs, no smoking signs, “For sale” signs, “For rent” signs, one-way signs, “Buy-one-get-one-free” signs, “Push” signs, “Pull” signs, and my favorite kinds of signs: “Entrance” and “Exit” signs. Everywhere we look there are signs.

Of course, in the Bible, everyone is always looking for signs. And we’re still looking. We all come to crossroads in our lives, and we’d love to have a sign, some simple sign that we’ve made the right choice. Did we pick the right course? The right career? The right spouse? Some kind of sign, even a little one, would be nice, just to reassure ourselves that we’re on the right path.

There is no lack of signs in our lives; in fact, if anything, there are too many signs. With so many signs, signs that often contradict each other, how do we decide which way to go? That “Entrance” sign may show you the door but it doesn’t show you what’s behind it, and with every exit you step once again into the unknown.

People of faith believe that God will nudge them in the right direction, will help them choose a path, will give them a sign of signs. People without faith, like me, don’t believe that. I see the world as more like that elderly Vermont gentleman: pretty much indifferent to which road I take. There’s nothing bad about that; it just means I’m looking for different kinds of signs, and I’m looking for them in different kinds of places.

The Polish author Wieslaw Brudzinski wrote:

The most difficult thing to find is the way to the signposts.

I remember this saying when I’m in search of a sign because it’s a reminder that, once you’ve had your sign, the hardest part is already over. If you’re at a crossroads in your life, consider yourself lucky. At least you’ve reached a place where you have to make a clear choice: You either turn left or turn right, go forward or go back.

An even more difficult time is before you reach the crossroads, when you’ve been driving a long, long time through a strange and alien landscape, when you have no idea where you are, where you’re going or even whether you’re headed in the right direction, only that you are a long, long way from home and there is not a single signpost in sight. This is the really hard part, and you know the old guy leaning on the fence isn’t going to help.

The most difficult thing to find is the way to the signposts.

How do you find the path? Or, even more importantly, how do you have the courage to stay on the path when you have no idea where it’s going? It helps to hear what others have said who have also passed this way. Winston Churchill said,

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

This is not a sign, but it is excellent advice if you ever want to find those signposts. The Buddha said,

Be lamps until yourselves.

This is also not a sign, but it does stress the importance of bringing your own source of illumination when you’re looking for one, especially in the dark. Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.

There’s no sign here either, just the determination to find one.

When you find yourself in a dark and sign-less time, follow the trail of breadcrumbs others have left behind. If you don’t have faith in a god, you can still have faith in yourself and your fellow man. If you don’t believe in any single sacred scripture, you can still compile a sacred scripture for yourself. “Make your own Bible,” Emerson, a preacher who lost his faith, wrote in his journal. “Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of triumph out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John, and Paul.” And I would add Cyril Connolly, who observed:

Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learnt to walk.

Words like these help guide us through the maze, at least until we find our way to the signposts.