Driving north on Interstate 81 toward Virginia and home, I was enjoying the peace and beauty of East Tennessee’s mountains. I had successfully cleared the traffic congestion of Knoxville’s “malfunction junction” and the four-lane speedway that’s euphemistically labeled I-40 East. Now, on I-81, I had room to drive, nice scenery to admire and good music to enjoy. All was well with my world.
Then, I saw it — a big flashing highway warning sign. An accident had all lanes of the northbound interstate blocked and shut down ahead. All cars were ordered to detour at the next exit. Traffic slowed to stop-and-go as we crept toward the exit. My calm suddenly turned into the chaos of uncertainty. My frustration and anxiety spiked. What was ahead for me?
On a detour
The side roads of my detour were crowded with cars and trucks. We moseyed along slowly, entertaining the locals at the crossroads stores with our impromptu single-file parade. While inconvenient, I thought at least we weren’t parked on an interstate, and the detour signs were clear and easy to follow. I began to relax a bit and notice what was around me. I was finally getting a leisurely tour of the scenic countryside I’d admired at much higher speeds on earlier trips.
Then, we rolled through the Main Street of the village of Bulls Gap, Tenn. There I saw a sign marking the birthplace of Archie Campbell, one of the stars of the 1970s TV show Hee Haw. Memories of Archie and that comedy show lifted me out of my frustration and took me back in time.
After studying art at Mars Hill College in North Carolina and following stints as a radio personality and a hitch in the Navy, Archie moved to Nashville and made his mark as a country comedian. One of Archie’s talents was storytelling with Spoonerisms, reversing the first letters of names and phrases. He jumbled the “Pee Little Thrigs” into a tongue-twister laugh riot that the Three Little Pigs themselves wouldn’t have recognized. As the “barber” on Hee Haw, Archie used Spoonerisms to entertain his customer, Roy Clark, who laughed a lot but mercifully never got a real haircut.
When the unfamiliar connected to the familiar, my East Tennessee detour immediately became less hectic and more interesting. Rather than a waste of time or an inconvenience, there were now things to see and ideas to consider. Shortly I was back on the interstate. And, the Virginia state line sign soon welcomed me home. For that day, my detour was over.
Detours: Frequent and fearful
“Detour” is an interesting word, isn’t it? Break the pieces down — “de” for reversal plus “tour,” meaning to take a turn or travel a circuit. When life detours us, we deviate from our plan, turn around or at least turn off the beaten path for a time, and take a roundabout course forward.
All of us have been detoured by life. In spite of our best laid plans, we’ve faced glitches — personal mistakes, family challenges, financial shortfalls, work problems and church disappointments — that took us down uncharted paths. By definition, detours have taken all of us to places we never intended to visit. Life’s detours force us off-course and knock us off-stride until life sorts itself out again.
Leading through detours
But there are helpful discoveries on detours too, especially for leaders. When our lives get detoured, there are lessons to learn.
• Stand steady. When detoured, rely on your available anchors.
Detours divert and distract us, but they rarely leave us without a place to stand. Several years ago, a commuter plane from New York miscalculated its night-time approach to Washington and soft landed in the Potomac River. A local passenger, returning home from a shopping trip in the Big Apple, suddenly found herself being directed onto the jet’s wing. She grabbed her purchases, walked onto the wing and jumped into the night. Falling in the dark, she remembered she couldn’t swim. Happily, she landed on a sand bar. When interviewed by the Washington Post, the woman said, “I was never so glad to feel something solid under my feet.” Even in the confusion of a detour, we find our anchoring places.
• Stay practical. When detoured, look for what’s still working.
Detours don’t mean everything’s broken beyond use. Remember the movie Apollo 13? The dramatic announcement, “Houston, we have a problem,” signaled a major detour. Do you also recall that during the chaos after the spacecraft was damaged by an oxygen tank explosion, the ground crew at Mission Control panicked? Then, flight director Gene Kranz confronted the craziness of the situation with the questions, “What’s good? What’s still working?” and directed the group’s energy toward problem-solving. Even amid dangerous detours, something may still be working well enough to provide seeds for solutions. Life’s best gifts may slip through a door we didn’t know was ajar.
• Use humor. When detoured, find ways to smile at the situation.
It’s not easy to find perspective amid detours. Winston Churchill said, “You will never reach your destination if you stop to throw stones at every dog that barks.” Humor helps us step back emotionally from distractions, see our situation a bit more objectively, and move ahead toward our destination.
Humor amid detours has its own flavor. Expect more irony than mirth, more gallows humor than lightheartedness. But smile. Better yet, laugh. Best of all, laugh out loud with others.
• Appreciate mystery. When detoured, live with the unknowns a while.
We naturally want to solve all problems immediately and to make all riddles instantly knowable. That’s human nature. But not all challenges lend themselves to quick or obvious remedies. Detours often force us to live for a while with uncertainties and unknowns. It takes time for the future to unfold and point us to new resources.
In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul gives a glimpse of life’s incompleteness. He describes how we see our lives distorted by inferior mirrors. Corinth, famous for its manufacturing of mirrors, used polished metals that provided imperfect reflections at best. As in life, a lot is left unknown, out-of-focus and mysterious in those mirrors.
The unknowns of life’s detours slow us down and challenge us to respond with patient faith. J.P. Allen, former pastor at First Baptist in Alexandria, Va., said once: “It’s not what happens to you that matters. It’s what you do with what happens to you.” Live with detour’s mysteries, and give life time to sort out the unclear parts of the picture and to reveal clearer paths forward.
• Remember others. When detoured, think of others as well.
I made a surprising discovery about detours in East Tennessee. Detour’s anxiety blinds us to others. I became so wrapped in myself that I forgot someone may have been injured in the traffic accident. I was reminded of a friend who stops and prays every time she hears a siren, because she assumes an emergency is unfolding. Here’s a simple reminder about detours: it’s not all about you or me. Others are on this detour route too.
An older friend flew Navy fighter planes in World War II. These aircraft flew in tight formations for mutual protection. When these pilots had to fly blindly through cloud banks, they were taught not to veer right or left, up or down. The key was to remember others and fly straight and level. If they lost nerve and swerved, they endangered others.
Open road ahead
Review with me. What can we learn from my I-81 detour? (1) Stand steady. My anchoring goal was to move consistently northward toward home. (2) Stay practical. The state police had marked a clear and reassuring detour route for me. (3) Use humor. After the Bulls Gap excursion, it became easier to consider the big picture and to smile. (4) Appreciate mystery. The detour’s uncertainty finally sorted itself out, and I soon returned to the familiar interstate. The road ahead was open. (5) Remember others. I was ashamed that I hadn’t thought of others when I first realized a major traffic accident had happened.
Life’s detours are more than mere bumps in the road. Instead, they redirect us and test our faith. How do you respond to personal or professional detours? How do you gather yourself again and lead when you’re jolted off-course? Your discoveries in the face of life’s inevitable detours enrich your faith and future. Who knows? You might even get a tour of beautiful downtown Bulls Gap.
Bob Dale ([email protected]) is a leader coach in Richmond and a retired seminary professor and denominational worker.