Being true to your word (and suspicious of your car nav system)

I’m sure you’ve been told not to rely too much on your SatNav (your car GPS system). That’s not just true; it’s very true. But it’s a lesson you learn only from experience, in our case bitter experience.

I’d preached on the Sunday night to a large congregation in the south of Illinois. Alison and I stayed in a local hotel overnight, and set off in good spirits first thing on Monday morning. There had been rainstorms in the early part of the weekend, but the new week had begun dry and sunny.

Part of my role as seminary president was to cultivate ‘contacts’, new and old, so ahead of time we’d arranged to make two visits on our way back north. We’d plenty time to arrive at the first in early afternoon and be at the second by late afternoon.

It didn’t happen. Not then.

Our first mistake was not realising for the first half hour that we were going the wrong way. The car GPS had been trying to direct us, but we weren’t paying attention. We stopped, thought about turning back, but then I uttered the fateful words, ‘Let’s just follow the GPS from here. It’ll know the best way’. That was the second mistake: not realising the GPS’s definition of ‘best way’ wouldn’t be ours.

We started well, but then got directed on to more minor roads. And then on to a particularly narrow road. We stopped, thought, and made our third mistake. I saw a sign saying this road was a ‘County Road’. That sounded important. It must soon get wider. It didn’t. It got narrower, and flooded, and very, very muddy. I couldn’t see potholes but we certainly felt them.

Alison wanted me to turn the car around. The road wasn’t wide enough to allow that, but I could have reversed. Then my fourth mistake. I told Alison, ‘We’re in a Subaru which has 4-wheel drive. We’ll be fine.’ And we were, almost. We bounced, banged and splashed along until only three hundred yards from a better road surface, and then the car lurched into a super-deep pothole and all forward progress stopped. I quickly tried to reverse. The car did not budge. I tried forward again, reverse again. No movement at all. Blame was equally attributed to the GPS and to my stubbornness.

I sat thinking but my only idea was to wedge branches from the nearby hedge under the wheels. I swung open the car door, stepped down and sank in mud right over my shoes. I waded across, got some branches, and pushed them under the wheels as best I could. Then I paddled to the rear of the car, ready to push as Alison drove. She put the car in gear and gently accelerated. The wheels turned, but the car stayed exactly where it was, and I got muddier than ever.

After an hour of failed attempts, we phoned a rescue service. ‘They’ll be with you in two hours’ I was told. Two hours! I managed to call the folks we were due to visit, and both assured us not to worry and we should just come another day. ‘No, we’ll be there, just later than we said.’ I’m not sure they believed we’d ever make it.

Two hours later and we saw movement in the distance back down the road. A truck was offloading a strange looking smaller vehicle which moved slowly through the mud towards us. As it got nearer I could see one person inside a continuous tread (a caterpillar tread) vehicle. Clearly the perfect transport for Illinois county roads.

Our friendly rescuer told us he’d already pulled three others out of mud that day. I was almost encouraged that we were not alone in our folly. He hitched a chain to our car, and we were dragged the remaining three hundred yards to a decently paved and dry road. With a friendly ‘hope the rest of your journey goes well’ he was off, perhaps to save some more.

It was now afternoon. I phoned our contacts, said we were still coming, just several hours late. They sounded sceptical. There were still many miles to cover, and we’d mostly be on minor roads.

Thankfully we soon reached a town with a row of car washes. An elderly man was supervising, took one look at our mud-covered car, and said, ‘You’ll be wanting the premium wash’. It was definitely a statement, not a question. Thankfully the premium wash was only $4 – prices aren’t high in rural Illinois. So the jets sprayed and the brushes whirred, but when I drove the car out, the supervisor said, ‘That won’t do. Go through again.’ Jets sprayed, brushes whirred, but again I was told, ‘Take it through another time’. Really? Really. Jets and brushes did their work a third time. The wash supervisor was still not happy. ‘I’ll give it a manual jet wash as well.’ So, he picked up a jet hose, and directed it into every corner and under every wheel arch. I think we were his project of the day.

‘How much do I owe you now?’ I asked.

He looked puzzled. ‘It’s $4’, he said. We had just had the best investment possible for $4.

One other stop was necessary. It was at a ‘gas station’, not really for the petrol we put in the car but so I could wash my shoes in the toilet. I mean ‘wash’. They were caked in mud, and all I could do was run them under the tap, over and over again, and then use paper towels to try and get them clean. I was very unsuccessful. They still looked dreadful. But we had to get moving, so I pushed my feet into sodden shoes, apologised to the counter attendant that I’d left his toilet ‘in a bit of a mess’ and on we went.

Finally, in late afternoon, we got to Ralph’s door. Only once before had I even said ‘hello’ to Ralph, so I’d no idea how we’d be received. He opened the door, gave a wide smile, and said ‘Come on in.’

‘I’d better leave my shoes outside,’ I said.

‘No need…’ he began to say, but then looked down and saw my shoes. ‘Yes, that would be a good idea.’

So, with my not-very-dry socks on full display, we sat talking to Ralph. His wife had died just three weeks before, and he seemed grateful for our company and concern.

After an hour we were on the road again, reaching Ray’s home about 7.00 in the evening. He was a graduate of the seminary from about 1950, and seemed honoured that the president was visiting him, no matter how late the hour. We had a great conversation before finally getting on to the Interstate road north. We reached home just before midnight.

The tailpiece to this tale is that Ralph and Ray became firm friends of both the seminary and of us personally. There were many more visits, each of which was a truly enjoyable experience. And what came up in conversation several times with each of these men? That first visit. The stuck-in-the-mud occasion. And the phrase used by both Ralph and Ray was: ‘After all that happened, I couldn’t believe you still came’. That meant so much to them. We’d said we’d visit, and we’d kept our word. They never forgot that.

In my experience, being true to your word matters for at least three reasons.

First, for our own integrity. We all know stories of people who promise but don’t deliver. It might be at the level of ‘the cheque’s in the post’ or ‘you’ll have your delivery on Monday’ but the cheque hasn’t been written, and the customer may get their order on some Monday but not next Monday. I’ll never understand how people can lie like that.

Then there’s another level, such as the character in one of Jeffrey Archer’s novels who proposes marriage, says the engagement announcement will be in the Times next day, and he’s about to pick up the ring, all to persuade the girl into bed before he goes off to war. There’s no engagement, no newspaper announcement and no ring. Just a broken heart and an unintended consequence… That’s callous selfishness, words that speak of love but come from a cruel heart, promises made that will never be kept. Whatever the short-term gain for the liar, there’s long-term loss for everyone else.

I don’t know how people who do that can live with themselves. They have a serious integrity deficit.

Second, people depend on us keeping our word.  We invited friends to come for dinner at 6 p.m. They said that would be lovely. Six o’clock came but our friends didn’t. Alison began a rescue plan for the meal. Surely they must arrive soon, but no-one appeared. The food rescue plan became one of life support. Not a sign of our friends at 6.30, not at 7.00, not at 7.30. Finally they arrived at 8.00, bright and cheery. There was no apology, other than from Alison that the food wasn’t quite as good as she’d hoped. It’s possible they got mixed up about the time to arrive, but the invitation was crystal clear. If they were unsure, they could have called.

Our friends’ late appearance happened literally decades ago, but I’ve never forgotten. You wouldn’t either if you’d carefully prepared a beautiful meal and experienced the stress and disappointment of trying to keep the food edible two hours longer than planned. (I should be clear, Alison was the cook. But we shared the stress and disappointment.)

When a delivery is promised by a certain date, people believe it and depend on it. It might be a cake for a birthday party, or a gold watch for a long-serving staff member’s retirement event. That cake and that watch matter. For those kinds of occasions, these are not small things. And when a cake or a watch don’t come because someone made false promises, it causes deep disappointment. People depend on us keeping our word, and there are sad and serious consequences when we don’t.

Third, being true to our word builds lasting relationships.  That’s what happened with Ralph and Ray. If the car had been wrecked or we’d been hurt, of course they’d have understood that plans had to change. But the bad time we’d been through just made things difficult, and made us late, but we still prioritised these two elderly men. Because of that, they decided we were people worth knowing, people who could be trusted, people who cared about them, people who would do what they said they’d do. And the friendship begun that day lasted until each of them died several years later.

You can’t buy relationships like that with slogans, or slick advertising, or gifts. It takes commitment, and a big part of commitment is being true to your word.

Therefore I should end with a warning. Be careful what you promise, because you’d better deliver on what you promise. Your words represent who you are, so when your words fail people believe you’ve failed. And there’s no way back after that.

Be true to your word. That’s my wisdom for this blog. Oh, and be careful about believing what your car nav system tells you.