We human beings are both path-makers and path-followers. Both are important, but it’s our innate capacity to follow paths that makes possible so much of what we are able to do, and gives it its character.
Notice this in your own home. How the door handle draws you to open the door, how the kitchen table is an invitation to sit, how the half-full fridge calls you to open its doors and find something to eat. Notice how a library is a place you find yourself hushed and reverential, how you push and shove to take up your place on a crowded train even though you would do this nowhere else, how you rise in unison to shout at a football game, how the words on the page guide you through the speech you are giving even when you’re not concentrating closely on them, how you quicken your step in a darkened alley, how you find yourself having driven for hours on a busy motorway without remembering what actions and choice any of the minutes entailed.
Our capacity to follow the paths laid out for us is no deficiency. That the paths support us in the background, and that we do not have to think about them, is what frees us for so much of what is creative and inventive in human life – including our capacity to design entirely new paths for ourselves and others.
To be human, then, is always in a large part to find ourselves shaped by what we find ourselves in the midst of.
It is all of this that exposes the limits of our individualistic understanding of ourselves and others – an understanding we use to make sense of so much of what happens in our lives. For when we are sure that it is the individual who is the source of all actions and behaviour, we are blind to the paths that we find ourselves in the midst of, and the possibility that we might lay out other paths as a way of supporting ourselves. And we tend to over-emphasise the role of individual will-power as a way to resolve things or change things.
And as long as we concentrate only on getting ourselves to change, or to muster up more ‘will’, we miss the opportunity to work together to change or lay out the new paths which could help us.
Indeed, working to change the paths that lend themselves to whatever difficulty we wish to address may be the most important work we can do. And this always includes our developing – together – the skills and qualities that support us in being purposeful path-makers in the first place.