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Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Labyrinth or maze?

How does our nation build its future?

Two strategies compete. Those cherishing our nation’s past want to restore America, as if it were successor to the biblical Eden. They focus on slices of our history when personal character counted in a country bursting with can-do citizens.

Those holding a competing vision don’t get nostalgic about a by-gone simpler rural America. They build on existing national strengths, transform weaknesses and believe the best is yet to be.



One vision wants to restore an American Eden from its past. The other yearns to transform our nation so that a U.S. updated Eden flourishes in the future.

When we differentiate between walking in a maze and strolling in a labyrinth, we understand how and why these visions compete.



Daniel W. Pink, in his book” Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future,” crisply notes how these metaphors differ: “A maze is a series of compartmentalized and confusing paths, most of which lead to dead ends. When you enter, your objective is to escape — as quickly as you can. A labyrinth is a spiral walking course. When you enter, your goal is to follow the path to the center, stop, turn around, and walk back out — all at whatever pace you choose.”

Pink concludes: “Mazes are analytical puzzles to be solved; labyrinths are a form of moving meditation. Mazes can be disorienting; labyrinths can be centering. Mazes engage the left brain; labyrinths free the right brain.”

A labyrinth serves as a metaphor for those who focus on our nation’s future transformation.



A maze works as a fitting symbol for backward-gazing folk, those who cherish repeating U.S. history when our nation excelled. Their goal is two-fold: to restore national greatness and show the exceptional character of the U.S.

A labyrinth doesn’t confuse walkers. By meandering and exploring, they head towards a renewed future. A maze traps strollers. In order to survive, walkers retrace steps and replay backward portions of their trek.

What’s the best way to renew our nation’s future? Is it to follow the trajectory of a labyrinth or a maze?

Barack Obama, during the 2008 presidential campaign, led eager listeners on a labyrinthine trail of hope and change. He riveted on the future. He promised with our help to “remake this world as it should be.” Listeners, sounding like the angelic chorus on Christmas Eve, joined in the chant Obama led: We are the change that we seek.

Obama’s journey to the White House mirrors that of the Wise Men. King Herod, feigning adoration for the Christ child, intended to murder him. This baby might someday compete for Herod’s crown. After the Magi visited Jesus in a home, they didn’t depart the way of the maze. They declined Herod’s request to return to his throne with contact information about the Christ child. Instead, the Wise Men traveled on a labyrinthine route towards their Persian homeland. “Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (Matthew 2:12).

Glen Beck and Sarah Palin have ditched the Wise Men’s travel guide that favors a labyrinth’s contours. They urge supporters to take back America, thereby replacing President Obama’s labyrinthine future brimming with hope.

They instruct Tea Partiers to retrace steps the Team Obama has taken since his inauguration and escape the maze of our national malaise. Beck and Palin want to restore America to its former greatness. Palin whips up frenzied crowds, demanding “not transformation but restoration with a ‘Great Awakening’ that we already feel emerging across America.”

Who does Sarah Palin sound like?

In the 1984 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan roused citizens to greet “Morning Again in America” and reject mundane Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. Reagan called America to return to its former simpler life. He pictured his Great Depression-era Midwestern upbringing as a slice of American history when our ideals were pure and our promises were strong as a farmer’s handshake.

Reagan walked down Main Street America where he imagined traditional family values shaped our fair land, where industry thrived because Big Government didn’t, where charity helped the poor rather than Uncle Sam, and where self-reliance prevailed over Federal regulation.

Reagan conjured an ideal that never was. He sold our nation a false bill of goods. Restore a time, he told us, when America was innocent, brave, free and prosperous. In the Great Depression, mind you! This actor made it all up.

Citizens during the Great Depression felt the U.S. economic engine had died. Out of work, the masses felt used up and worthless. The Iowa farmer whose land was foreclosed and the fired Wall Street banker who sold apples on Manhattan’s street corners felt expendable and useless in the threadbare1930s.

Stuck in a maze, the U.S. didn’t escape it until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who relished the labyrinthine way, led their rescue.

Our challenge is to walk in a national labyrinth. Pause at critical moments. Allow more citizens can get a fair shake. Don’t wallow in nostalgia. Face the future with hopeful hearts.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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