The Traffic Light, a parable

Last week I wrote about trust in parenting. I have had a few questions about how we can trust when the heart is ultimately wicked. I submit this story as an allegory to help illustrate how we trust even when we know the heart is untrustworthy.

Once upon a time there was a town, Credence Village, where two roads met. In that town some folks lived in the South and worked in the North. Other folks lived in the North and worked in the South. Still, again, some people lived in the West and worked in the East, and others traveled each day to work from East to West. It seemed that every day nearly every resident of Credence drove through that intersection.

Cars darted through the intersection in all kinds of crazy ways. When people approached it they took advantage of any opportunity they could. Frequently, two motorists, each trying to get ahead of the other, would collide, leaving behind bent bumpers, angry drivers, and traffic jams that crippled the town. Many said that single intersection had lead many people to feuding because of the frequent collisions. The East-Westers felt contempt for the North-Southers, and the South-Northers despised the West-Easters.

One day, the town’s elders had a great idea. One of the members had been traveling in a nearby city and noticed that they had installed a new lighting system with red, yellow, and green. It was effectively controlling the traffic as people made their way through the crossing. “Let’s install one here,” the elder said. “We can place it in our intersection and teach our people to understand it’s meaning.”

While a bit confusing at first, soon after the installation the people of Credence began to obey the lighted signal. When they had a red light in their direction, they would stop and give way to those who had a green light. They began to have great confidence when they saw a green light and traveled through the crossroads without slowing down hardly at all. Amazingly, the regular fender benders and logjams had all but disappeared. It saved the town’s folks a bunch of time and many, many hours of travel. It was so helpful that the town’s economy began to thrive and the people began to treat their neighbors with more respect. Soon people North, South, East and West had begun to share sweet camaraderie with one another.

The big threat to this lighted peace came one day when a man driving East misread the signal in the evening light. He entered the intersection against the rule at the same time a woman traveling South, seeing a yellow light, accelerated to make sure she would not have to stop. The collision was great, the damage enormous, and the casualties were too much for the Credencians to take. The pain was extraordinary. Old hurts came back with a vengeance, and feuds renewed.

Many people began petitioning the elders to get rid of the light. A town meeting was called and battle lines drawn. “Without the light we knew that we couldn’t trust anyone; we would slow down with caution. If the sun was high or if the sun was low it didn’t matter, because we knew that we were on our own through that light. It was better when we knew we couldn’t trust one another,” argued the advocate for The Abolition of the Dangerous Signal.

This argument seemed to make sense and was gaining support among many townsfolk. It seemed a certainty that the light was doomed and soon the town would go back to days of cross town discord. The town’s elders dreaded the return to those days.

They had studied the situation and the town was much, much better with the light. They demonstrated that while the one collision with the light was hideous, the hundreds of problems without the light had crippled everyone. The town would not likely survive a return to the old way.

Finally, the Eldest stood to talk. “Dear people of Credence. A great tragedy has come to our town. We all have suffered from the effect of a sad collision that was caused in part by misplaced trust. We used to live in a way that was completely untrusting of our fellow Credencians. Once upon a time, when I drove through town I assumed nobody was watching out for me. I was on my own. I know that each of you felt the same way. That distrust made it impossible for me to care about you. I could only care about myself.”

“Then one day, our great town received a gift. That gift was a signal that allowed us to learn to trust one another. I learned to allow you the right of way, and you learned to allow me my way. I learned to trust that you’d stop for me, and you learned to trust me to stop for you.”

“But then one day we discovered that our trust for one another was limited. This signal gave us an ability to trust one another but it didn’t make any of us fully trustworthy. The collision that we have witnessed was brought in part by one misreading the light, and by another trying to squeeze trust to their favor. It is not the fault of the signal, but the signal led us to a point of complacency. When we learned to trust one another we forgot that we are ultimately untrustworthy.”

“We can blame this untrustworthiness on the one thing that brought trust to this community, or we can learn from our pain and understand that untrustworthiness is something that lies in each of us. When a collision occurs, it’s not your fault or my fault. It’s not because we were wrong to ever allow ourselves to trust. Collisions are the result of poor vision and poor judgment. We shouldn’t ban trust. We must learn to admit to ourselves that we need to be kept in check. We must admit to one another that we are fallible but trying. We must accept the trust that we received with the gift of the signal, but we need to know that we must approach our interactions with care, and we must accept that eventually collisions are inevitable. The next time there is a collision, just like this time, we need to grieve together and work to learn to trust one another again. I will do this by beginning to prove to you that I am trustworthy as I approach this intersection and stop when the light is red, and extend the hand of trust to you when I have a green light.”

Fortunately, the Eldest reached the people where they were and cooler heads prevailed. The signal was saved and people began to trust one another, although with a few more scars to remember the threat at the intersection and the forgiveness that that brings healing.


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