Nearly thirty years ago, John Piper offered an illustration of inter-sexual dynamics that is still talked about today. It continues to be invoked by complementarians, in an effort to scorn what the book of nature, the history of the church, and the word of God all teach about patriarchy:
For example, a housewife in her backyard may be asked by a man how to get to the freeway. At that point she is giving a kind of leadership. She has superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance. But we all know that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man that neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised.” (Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, 41)
This illustration, most recently invoked by Kevin DeYoung, and less recently by Carl Trueman, is not even about whether a man should receive directions from a woman. It simply affirms the inevitability of women finding themselves in social situations where they have an opportunity to guide men.
Nevertheless, the illustration continues to irk complementarians because they seem to think Pr. Piper was suggesting that this kind of interaction is somehow inappropriate. Those who think this should do themselves a favor and read the entire chapter. If the infamous illustration raises any question concerning propriety, it should really be about a stranger approaching a married woman in her back yard—that seems like a good way to get shot. A safer option would be to stop at a gas station and ask the girl behind the counter. I have done this many times—and as a patriarchalist, I would much prefer never to do it again.
The reason for this preference may be instructive in understanding the kinds of inter-sexual dynamics that Piper was driving at in his illustration. It may even offer a mundane window into the deep, even spiritual differences between men and women that are so despised and rejected today.
Crisis situations are essentially problem-solving opportunities. They are more emotional than a typical problem-solving situation, which can make them much harder to navigate, but most men love to solve problems.
Personally speaking, I find it strangely rewarding to regain my bearings simply by looking up toward the sun, or down toward the shadows, or over at the moss on a house’s vinyl siding. It is a simple thing, yet like many of the simplest things, it satisfies something deep in the soul.
There is a similar deep satisfaction that comes from deciphering the grid-based naming system that a city has adopted for streets and addresses.
In the same way, the act of extracting directions from a stranger also resonates with what it means to be a man. It is seldom of lasting consequence, yet it is a meaningful act of dominion—something like a civilian version of a reconnaissance mission. He possesses something I need, and I must extract it. In this minor exchange, we feel echoes of the hunt, the quest, and other symbolic structures that “resonate” between the world, and men’s souls.
At the same time, another very different pattern resonates here: fraternity. Because I am only asking for directions, the engagement is entirely charitable. In saying, “Hey man, can you help me out for a second?” I have affirmed his importance, acknowledged his command of this part of the world, and established a classic traveling man’s camaraderie.
I love getting lost. I never do it intentionally, but it happens to the best of men, and the best of men should love it. Problem-solving satisfies the male soul. “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honor of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2). As men, we are designed to face the earth, descend into it, find our way out again, and show it who is boss. This is bound up in ruling and subduing the earth (Genesis 1:26). It is built into our souls.
Women, on the other hand, do not typically enjoy being lost. Rather than resonating, the experience is more likely to vex their souls with anxiety. Again the reason is obvious: they are not designed to face the world and conquer it; they are designed to refine a conquered world by filling it. Men are fruitful through conquest—through ordering the world to build a house. Women are fruitful through comity—through ordering a house to build a home.
Let’s get back on the road again. There is, for a man, a small but profound joy in asking another man for directions. Yet we dislike asking women for directions.
Does it constitute some threat to our existential manhood?
Does it compromise our hierarchical worldview in some way?
The main reason we do not like to ask women for directions is simply this: the directions they offer are usually convoluted.
This is not due to any ontological inequality between the sexes, but rather the simple fact that the minds of men and women work differently. Because they have been designed by God for different domains and tasks, their souls “resonate” with different things—and out of the heart the mouth always speaks. Psychological research substantiates this; men, on average, are more proficient in performing major spatial tasks, while women tend to excel in other areas of intelligence, like object location memory (e.g., “Honey, where’s my wallet?”)
These cognitive differences usually become more pronounced in crisis situations—even mild crises, like feeling lost, or being suddenly summoned to aid someone who is lost. In such situations, men tend to demonstrate higher levels of fluid intelligence, where creative solutions to novel problems are necessary; while women tend to do better using learned facts, or applying protocols.
This strongly affects the “connection” between the two parties in an asking-for-directions situation.
For instance, an extremely important element of masculine problem-solving is the identification and elimination of unhelpful information from an equation. Said another way, detecting signal out of noise. Unfortunately, noise is what I have found many women contribute when offering directions.
Take, for example, the last time I was lost—during a trip through rural Iowa. I had decided to take “the scenic route” to avoid a detour, and eventually began wondering whether my route would indeed re-intersect with a main thoroughfare. I stopped at a small gas station in a very small town to check.
Based on an extremely brief conversation with the clerkette, I quickly discovered that she interpreted geographical reality according to familiar landmarks, memories of her mom, friends who worked at Walmart, and some other “salt of the earth” stuff that I cannot recall.
The information I needed was about directions (do I keep driving west?), mileage (what is the distance to the next major highway?), and access (will there be an on-ramp at that particular intersection?)
Her mind simply did not work that way—and research suggests she is not the only one.
I have no doubt that she could have driven the route herself—but I suspect she would probably navigate it best with a car-full of cousins excitedly on their way to attend their youngest niece’s bridal shower. Which, according to all reports, is going to be like sooo much fun.
This fundamental difference in male/female cognition and communication is something I have also observed during twenty years of marriage. When my dear wife gets lost, I have learned over the years to translate “proper directions” into something more helpful to her. I never say, “Continue north until you can go west. You’ll eventually find the highway.”
Rather, I say something like this: “Just keep driving until you see Culver’s. Turn left at the next stoplight and drive for about 5 minutes. Watch for a green sign that says I-90 toward Madison. The on-ramp will be on your right, so get in that lane early. If you see the Holiday Inn with the broken sign where we attended John’s graduation dinner, you went too far and you will have to turn around and try again.” I cringe when people start offering me such inefficient directions because they first need to be reduced, like a sauce; or derived, like Newton’s math. That is the real reason this particular patriarch avoids asking women for directions.
Thin complementarians, egalitarians, and other cultural androgynists have cultivated a deliberately tin ear to the significance of such experiences. They are eager to reduce masculine awareness to a personal failing, mocking the “fragile male ego” that would even notice such mundane feelings, let alone be so “insecure in its masculinity” as to project a deeper meaning onto them.
Do not be gaslighted into doubting that what you know is so. A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding (Proverbs 14:6). Reflecting on what we learn in simple, everyday experiences is important for becoming fluent in the deep “structural” differences between men and women. It is by listening closely to the music of creation, even in our own selves, that we tune our ears to discern the chords that God has designed us to play.