Mount LeConte is one of the tallest and most picturesque mountains in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The peak is listed at 6,593 feet in elevation. Located just a few miles from Gatlinburg, it remains a popular day-hike for thousands of people each year. At the summit, is a beautiful, rustic lodge surrounded by several cabins. An adventurer can reserve a night’s stay from late March till mid-November. Those who do so, will enjoy a both a beautiful view and a good, hearty breakfast to provide plenty of energy for the descending hike. There are five trails or paths that lead to the summit. The shortest, and by far the most arduous, is the Alum Cave Trail which takes hikers on a steep, magnificent 5-mile trek. The longest trail, named the Brushy Mountain Trail, winds its way for over 9 miles. All are distinct in many ways, but any of the five will get a hiker to the top.
Sometimes the paths we take determine much about who we become and how we relate to the world around us. Social scientists suggest that most of us become rather “set in our ways” around the age of 25. By 25, most of us have defined much about our character, our morality, our priorities, our faith expressions, and even our political affiliations. The paths on which we have walked for those first 25 “formative years” have influenced us in a number of ways. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of paths that can lead an individual to adulthood. It is in understanding our paths that we may unlock some of the divisive opinions and attitudes that are so prevalent in the American culture.
I am often in discussions with people of good faith who scratch their heads and wonder how others can view the world so differently than they. Many of us have felt the disconnect created in our relationships with friends, associates, neighbors, and even fellow church members over the past few years. Surely, we have all asked some of these questions: “How can so-and-so support that candidate? How can those politicians believe such legislation is good for our state? How can people who claim a strong faith be so angry and spew such vitriolic language at others? How can anyone not see the damage such attitudes cause?” We wonder how some can get so confused, so lost, or so blind… or at least how their worldview can become so warped in comparison to our own. We are all sane, rational adults and yet our views are so vastly different, even among those who read the same sacred texts. How does it happen? Maybe it’s the paths taken, or even the paths we were forced to walk as we made our way into adulthood that have made us so divergent. Again, it is understanding the paths traveled that we might offer ourselves needed perspective. It is not that every person should walk in lock-step or that all of us should think or pray or even vote the same way. We need diversity of thought to make us better. It is that we need to learn from each other and at least understand who we are and how we arrived at this moment. Rather than walk in someone else’s shoes for a while, maybe we should consider the paths those shoes have walked.
The path that leads through family life is certainly one of the most important paths we take on our way to adulthood. We are strongly influenced by those who raised us. In households where love and support were consistently offered, where key virtues were modeled and not distorted, the influence of home powerfully shaped us. We grew to think like our parents. We consumed the morals that were modeled. And so, we now speak the same language and think the same thoughts as our parents did. Though we may step away from that nurturing path and take a slightly divergent way from time to time, we tend to become much like the family that raised us, for good or bad.
The pathway of adolescence is also a powerful influence. In my many years of pastoral ministry, I often told parents that they needed to know their children’s friends almost as well as their children did. Those friendships are powerful and help to shape and mold opinions and positions. We sometimes hear about the dangers of “running with the wrong crowd.” There is some truth to that. The close connections of teenage years speak strongly into the minds of our kids.
The pathway that took many of us to college needs to be added to the list. For many college represents the first time away from home. College becomes the place to explore new thoughts, try new things, build new relationships. Sometimes the path opens our minds to things never considered before or teaches the eager to ask questions about topics that up-to-this-point were either set in stone or were simply taboo. Some leave college completely unfazed by all the influences and experiences, while others depart with a whole different set of values and ideals.
Certainly the role of social media is a part of this conversation. Those walking the path towards adulthood spend far more time glued to their screens than they do connected to family conversation. We call those with millions of followers, “influencers” and rightly so. With a single tweet or tik-tok video, opinions and thoughts spread like wildfire. It is in the wide-open space of social media that both good and bad thoughts are spread. Misinformation travels just as quickly as the truth and we would do well to remember that.
For most who are traveling to adulthood, the path of religion is extremely powerful. The words proclaimed from the pulpit as well as the opinions expressed in the hallways, captivate, motivate, and infuriate. Faith is so vitally important to most of us that even if religion starts to get a little askew and preaching becomes more about politicking than piety, most of us never notice until we are drawn into a “righteous anger” that is neither righteous nor ethical and certainly not in keeping with the morality that our Scriptures suggest. To be fair, not all churches have yielded to a pseudo-Gospel that distorts reality and warps the great teachings of faith… but many have. A pathway doesn’t have to diverge very far until it becomes distorted. The Scriptures themselves suggest that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God is to visit widows and orphans in their time of distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Such a notion is a far cry away from the abusive, misogynistic, fear-mongering messages that many proclaim.
And so, we arrive at adulthood, well-informed or ignorant, wise or foolish, mature or lacking, confident or confused, or maybe with all of those traits. We are very much the result of the paths that brought us to this place. And even as we enter the adult world, we continue to choose the paths before us. In other words, we can’t blame all that we have become on the inexperience of youth. Many of us choose to continue down the same ideological paths that we have always walked. Rather than search for new meaning, new thoughts, and new perspectives, we find others who closely match our set of values and join them for the next phase of our journey. The more we walk in the presence of the like-minded, the more we reinforce limited viewpoints, narrow-minded opinions, and echo-chamber rhetoric. Somewhere along the journey we may even lose a sense of discernment that would allow us to self-reflect and seek greater perspective. The various viewpoints of our time divide us and the caustic politics tear relationships asunder and we wonder if such connections are forever broken.
Like many of you, I am mystified at where we have landed as a people. I loathe the divisive nature of both the political podium and the powerful pulpit. I grieve over what we have become. We are no longer “one nation under God, indivisible…” but warring factions that tear at the social fabric of what we aspire to be. How can we even start the process of beginning again? Is there a way to find reconciliation? Can we reframe our conversations in a way that becomes constructive and not destructive?
The answer lies not in more rants, more tweets, and more caustic words. It begins with a desire to at least understand why some have made the choices they have made and supported the causes they deem important. Some of the answers we seek are found along the pathways that every individual has walked. As I stated previously, we are indeed, the product of our environment. But perhaps there is still hope. A commitment to lifelong learning, relationship building, and to the creation of space for community with those who stand in a different place are some of the ways we can teach new tricks to the old dog within us. And maybe the best hope for the future is found in our continued walk, where all of our paths can willingly cross again, but this time with a sense of civility, respect, and understanding.