We, humans, love to follow beaten paths. Both figuratively and literally.
In the literal sense, the environment is grateful. For 82 years, when members of the Skyline Hikers go hiking into the high mountains of Canada’s national parks, they’re instructed to stay on the paths.
Especially if they go up to where the mountain meadows dance with wildflowers.
But if there is no path at all, then the group should spread out.
Those wildflowers can recover from one set of footprints flattening them. They will not recover from two or three sets of footprints all stomping them down.
So if there’s a path, we should follow it.
But what if you don’t want to go along a beaten path?
Personally, I like “bushwhacking.” I worked in the woods a couple of summers. I learned to trust – to an extent – my own instincts and my mental map.
So when I’m out on the local trails, walking my dog, I occasionally take side trips. To explore a rock face, perhaps. To circumnavigate a small lake. To find an alternate viewpoint.
But I’ve noticed that if I take that diversion more than once or twice, my feet leave enough imprint that other people start taking the same route. And before long there’s a whole new beaten path, that wasn’t there before.
Figuratively, too, we also like to follow beaten paths. In politics, in theology, in economics, we are much more comfortable endorsing and supporting ideas that someone else has expressed already.
It’s nice to be able to quote directions from Albert Einstein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Nelson Mandela. You’re not out on a limb alone if you’ve got one of them out there too.
It’s even better if you can cite some unquestionable authority: an encyclopedia, a dictionary, the Bible.
I wonder what it feels like, though, if you’re an authority figure yourself, and you feel you need to establish a new trail.
Pope John XXIII shook up the church when he called Vatican II. Centuries of tradition got left behind when Catholic priests started celebrating Mass in the local language.
Scarborough Missions sent priests to China, before Mao booted missionaries out. The Chinese priests they ordained, long ago, were cut off from the world church for 50 years.
They knew nothing of Vatican II’s reforms.
I happened to be visiting the Scarborough Mission the day some of those Chinese priests celebrated Mass in Latin, as they had always done.
The retired Scarborough priests living there were in tears.
Now Pope Francis is breaking his own trails.
Accepting same-sex marriages. Investigating the sexual deviations of men like U.S. ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Making the environment, capitalism and climate change into up-front issues.
Bushwhacking must feel very vulnerable, where no one has ever set foot before.
Someday soon, an economist will produce a new theory that makes sense out of the massive deficit borrowing of governments all around the world to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
If everyone’s borrowing, who’s supplying the cash? Who are they borrowing from?
We need new theories occasionally. Different circumstances demand new theories.
But it’s not easy being out there on your own. it’s much easier to follow paths that someone else has already beaten smooth.
Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.