My favorite cities to explore are the ones that have come together organically rather than according to a plan. Where some city centers were built on a grid with each building aligned closely with the road beside it and each street meeting the others at a perfect 90-degree angle, I prefer the cities that arose without such careful design. These are the cities where the streets wind and turn, where roads meet and cross one another at quirky angles, where creative traffic signals are needed to protect drivers and pedestrians from themselves.
Most of these cities had inauspicious beginnings. One person crossed an empty field to get from one place to another, then did so a second time and a third. Soon another person followed in his faint footsteps, then another and another. Gradually, over time, a track was worn. The track eventually became a path and then, as time passed and traffic grew, the path was widened to a road. As still more people passed that way, houses were built beside it and shops were founded to serve the passersby. A hamlet became a village became a town became a city. By then it was too late to create a grid, too late to follow a plan. The roadways had already been worn.
In much of life we build habits and patterns the way people build roads. Just as a man walks through a field, then finds that others are following in his footsteps and widening his trail to a roadway, a man may exhibit a kind of behavior, then repeat it in view of others, and find that they begin to imitate him. He learns, perhaps to his surprise, that a private behavior has become a public habit. He did not intend to be such an influencer, but inadvertently created the way in which others followed.
The man who grumbles in his heart will soon grumble before his household and before his fellow church members. He has begun to walk a trail of complaint and will find that others begin to follow in his footsteps, that they begin to imitate him. As time goes on he will be the head of a household of grumblers and a member of a grumbling church. It takes just one man to blaze a trail. There are always those who are eager to follow.
The woman who loves to ponder the sins and foibles of others will soon begin to gossip to those who are closest to her and then to those who are farther away. She has begun a faint trail that will inevitably grow deeper and wider and more distinct as others follow along it. Before long she is part of a gossiping community and part of a gossiping church. She created the trail and now the whole community is walking in it.
But what is true of bad habits is equally true of good. What is true of vices is true of virtues. Just as we can create paths that lead to destruction, we can create paths that lead to life. Just as we can lead people to habits that dishonor God and harm others, we can lead people to habits that glorify God and do good to others.
The man who loves to be a source of encouragement will first encourage the ones who are closest to him, then over time encourage the ones who are a little more distant. His life-giving, hand-raising, knee-strengthening words will begin to blaze a trail through this wearying life and others will follow in it. Others will imitate him, follow in his footsteps, and become encouragers themselves. His whole community will be blessed by his godliness because the whole community will come to be influenced by it.
The woman who values prayer will model a life of prayer before her family and friends. She will be quick to say, “Let’s pray about that,” eager to ask, “How can I pray for you?” Her feet begin to carve a faint trail through life’s wildernesses and soon others will find it and walk in it until it has become a well-worn path, a carefully-cultivated habit. A praying woman leads to a praying family, a praying group of friends, and a praying church.
And so each of us is an inadvertent trailblazer. Each of us makes ways that others will follow, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. Each of carves trails through this life and through this world and each of us ought to consider that where our feet fall, others will soon follow behind us.