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January 14, 2013 5:00 pm
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The Road Less Traveled

avatar by Erica Brown / JNS.org

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My GPS is conspiring against me. It tricks me into taking the wrong direction. It usually does not start giving me directions until I am already lost and then repeats “recalculating” with increasing urgency. I’m ready to throw it out the window. Years ago, my son thought it would be amusing to change it to Swedish for April Fools’ Day; the way I drive, it did not make a difference.

I am reminded of the classic scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

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“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

(This dialogue has often been condensed into a popular leadership quote attributed to the book that apparently does not appear in the Alice in Wonderland series: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”)

Only once we determine where we want to go, can we establish the best way of getting there, GPS or not. But this simple description of a journey is becoming more complex these days. In the most recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows interviewed Michael Jones, a chief technology advocate for Google, on the changing notions of map-making through technology. Remember the days when we had to rely on creased maps that spilled over the steering wheel and were near-accidents in the making? We moved from those to MapQuest printed on 8 and 1/2 x 11 sheets that told us when to turn left and right and in how many miles. We thought MapQuest was the best thing ever to happen to our highways and byways.

Satellite developments changed all of that. According to Jones: “The major change in mapping in the past decade…is that mapping has become personal.” And then Jones explains what he means, “The old map was a fixed piece of paper, the same for everybody who looked at it… So a map has gone from a static, stylized portrait of the Earth to a dynamic, interactive conversation about your use of the Earth.” What a remarkable change this has been in the way that we see the world.

If we jump back a few hundred years, when people believed that the sun revolved around the earth, one of the main contentions against Copernicus and the helio-centric view of the universe is that it defied the view that human beings are the center of the world. This was not only about science; it was about spirituality. Where do human beings fit in such a world? Today, with the way in which map-making has changed, human beings can once again reclaim that ancient role because we can adjust the globe to fit our personal needs, making the world, at once, a smaller place to navigate.

The quote from Proverbs—”Wise people walk the road that leads upward to life…”—is perhaps the best GPS. Wisdom guides and directs us on the journey, taking us upward in a transcendent path no matter where we are going. And usually, it is best to ask for help with directions. Perhaps our new capacity to make personal maps will help us in our search and acquisition for personal wisdom.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

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