This week, my son headed south from the Canadian border to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, following the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range 2700 miles to Mexico. Each of us has a different path to walk until we reach that place inside us that we call “home.” My son’s journey brings to mind these reflections:
Let your eyes look directly forward, and your eyelids will straighten your path.
In 2009, a German scientist named Jan Souman took a group of subjects out to empty parking lots and open fields, blindfolded them, and instructed them to walk in a straight line. Some of them managed to keep to a straight course for ten or twenty paces; a few lasted for 50 or a hundred. But in the end, all of them wound up circling back toward their points of origin. Not many of them. Not most of them. Every last one.
“And they have no idea,” Dr. Souman told NPR. “They were thinking that they were walking in a straight line all the time.”
Dr. Souman’s research team explored every imaginable explanation. Some people turned to the right while others turned to the left, but the researchers could find no discernable pattern. As a group, neither left-handed nor right-handed subjects demonstrated any predisposition for turning one way more than the other; nor did subjects tested for either right- or left-brain dominance. The team even tried gluing a rubber soul to the bottom of one shoe to make one leg longer than the other.
“It didn’t make any difference at all,” explained Dr. Souman. “So again, that is pretty random what people do.”
In fact, it isn’t even limited to walking. Ask people to swim blindfolded or drive a car blindfolded and, no matter how determined they may be to go straight, they quickly begin to describe peculiar looping circles in one direction or the other.
But Solomon understood: No matter how noble our intentions and no matter how firm our resolve, the ability to stay true to our course should never be taken for granted. Frequently, the path that appears the most direct leads us even farther away from where we want to go.
A rabbi traveling from one city to another came to a crossroad at the outskirts of his destination. A small boy was sitting at the intersection.
“My son, which road leads to the city?”
“Both roads lead to the city, sir,” the boy answered, “but one road is longer than the other.”
“And which is the shorter?” asked the rabbi.
“This road is a long road, nevertheless a short one; but that one is a short road, and at the same time, a long one.”
The rabbi took the short road, which the boy had said was at the same time a long one. As he approached the city, he found it surrounded by gardens with high fences and parks behind locked gates, so that he could not pass through and had to return to his starting point. The boy was still sitting beside the road, and the rabbi said to him, “My son, did you not say that this road was the short one?”
“Yes, rabbi,” he replied, “but did I not also tell you that it was, at the same time, a long one?”
The rabbi lifted the little fellow up and, kissing him on the head, he said: “Ah, you are wiser than I, my son.”
So how do we hold true to our course? Dr. Souman explained what might otherwise seem obvious, a simple solution to the circular inclinations of the internal human compass. With external clues, like a mountaintop or other promontory on the horizon, people have no trouble at all traveling a straight line.
Travelling through life, it is wisdom that provides us with a clear vision of purpose and destination, without which we are destined to wander endlessly in circles. At the same time, wisdom informs us what to filter out, lest the myriad distortions and temptations of the world leave us hopelessly disoriented. This is what Solomon meant when he urged us to let our eyes look directly forward, holding course by keeping focus on our ultimate goals, so that our eyelids will straighten our path by shutting out the false attractions on every side.
Excerpted from Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages by Yonason Goldson.