You’ve seen them spilling off the paved trail into the woods; you’ve seen them in parks; across sand dunes; wherever people go. There’s no standard English phrase for them. A couple of terms are “desire paths” and “goat trails.” In another era they were called bootleg trails. They are those paths that steadfastly ignore the “keep to the trail” or “keep off the grass” signs and dart off on their own, wearing paths of least resistance or of the shortest distance between two points.
Desire paths. Sometimes planners give up and pave them; sometimes fences go up that are promptly trampled down. If there’s one thing we human beings are good at, it’s finding the quickest way to our desires—they aren’t called “goat trails” for nothin’. Sure, they look like the paths goats make; they also serve to get us to our desires faster, as we follow the goat-footed god Pan, often in the word inspired by his name, “panic.”
Religions have served a public and personal good through the millennia, sometimes erecting fences across desire paths (that quickly get trampled down); sometimes creating new desire paths (such as martyrdom or saintliness); and sometimes explaining unavoidable desire paths as the will of one god or another.
Ours is not the first human generation to want everything now, now, now. A whole folk wisdom tradition has arisen around advice to postpone desires—“If wishes were horses,” the old saying goes, “beggars would ride.”
Everyone knows that “good things come to those who wait.” Many of us have felt the sorrow summed up in “a minute on the lips, forever on the hips.”
And, perhaps my favorite, “early ripe, early rotten.”
British behavioral scientist Paul Dolan recently published a book called Happiness by Design. The subtitle is, “Change What You Do, Not What You Think.” Dolan makes some excellent points: We are what we pay attention to. Forgot about what a person believes. Or wishes for. Look for what someone actually does.
Look at your “to do” list. What are you actually excited about doing on that list? That’s where your attention is going to go. Now, look at the “desire path” you are taking to get there.
Attention is a limited resource: put it one place, and it necessarily isn’t in another place. And sometimes it can be nowhere at all.
There’s a great deal of talk these days about “mindfulness,” which is a method by which we can notice where our attention is going.
The opposite of mindfulness is mind-less-ness. Auto-pilot. That’s when you think about how you got somewhere and realize that you can’t remember the trip. That’s when you’re way down a desire path before realizing it’s a pointless trip.
Bertrand Russell perhaps summed it up best: “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”
That’s what I’m thinking about this holiday season: what am I doing because I’m “supposed to be” doing? What am I doing because I’ve always done it?
Where am I really putting my attention?
I’m sitting down, looking around, and thinking about it. Because, as the sacred scripture of Led Zeppelin tells us, “there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”