One of my favorite things about winter are the footprints you make in the snow after a fresh snowfall- the imprint of the path you took on your way to another location, a trace of a person who once stood there. I often find myself mesmerized at the tracks on the ground. I admire the pattern of the tread, the length of the stride, the direction of travel, the way the track goes off course to avoid obstacles. I try to step in the same tracks someone else created, mimicking their path. I wonder who the tracks belong to: What were they doing? Where were they going? What was the person thinking about when they stood on the very ground I stand on now? These questions may never be answered. All I have is their footprint: a track that can lead me to answers if I choose to follow it. The only thing separating me from the people who left these footprints is time.
Standing on a historical site captivates me in a similar way: the only thing separating us from the people who made the site famous is time. But, these people also left their footprints on these sites. They left tracks for people to follow if they so choose.
Every site we arrive at, we each come with a judgment of the event and the people who once stood here. A judgment that appears so crystal-clear, so obvious. A judgment of who was “good” and who was “bad”. A judgment on the beliefs and motivations of one against another. And finally, a judgment on the quality of decisions made. And with these judgments in mind, we put on the shoes of these historical figures. We think the shoes are ill-fitting, thinking it impossible to relate to this person when our feet have evolved so much. Nonetheless, we follow their boot tracks, tracing the path and person they were.
Walking through a historic site, it is possible to understand more than what meets the eye. It is possible to overcome these surface judgments that are so ingrained in historical memory. There were real people who stood right where we are standing. Each of them was there for a reason, carving their own path through the site. Each of the people here was someone. Real people with a story, a unique voice, and an individual set of circumstances.
Although time may have separated us from the people, their tracks can still be followed. Artifacts can be found, documents discovered, graves visited, stories told, photographs shown. And slowly, we piece together a more accurate picture of a historical event. We move past identifying and judging people simply by the “pattern, size and direction of their footprint” and the human being who left the trail begins to come to life. With these shoes on, we begin to understand the context of the event and decisions made, blurring our 20/20 historical eyesight. We learn that events, people, and their beliefs are much more complex than originally judged. When we put ourselves in these shoes, we understand situations and decisions are not always as clear cut as we initially thought. We understand people are never simply “good” or “bad”. Everyone in history is a little bit of each.
Then we look within ourselves and ask ‘who of us is not the same?’ That is what makes us human.
That is what allows us to put on the shoes of those who came before us.
Suddenly, we realize the shoes we put on fit just right after all.