Footprints in the Snow

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.

~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Since these words were written two and a half centuries ago, their meaning has been the subject of debate. Few can deny the power of the statement, but most differ in exactly where they think the true revelation lies within the sentence.

Putting aside, for now, the concept of everywhere, and taking for granted the initial premise that 'man is born free,' two meanings can emerge from the idea of man being in chains (at least, the two that I will focus on).

The enslavement of man can be external- imposed by society on an individual- or internal- imposed by the individual himself. It is the internal argument I'm interested in.

If man is born free, we can think of a life (man, woman, or beast) as an open valley, untouched by human hand. At the onset of life, then, we all stand before a great expanse of earth blanketed, as far as the eye can see, by snow of the purest and whitest form. The entire terrain, an entire life, is a blank slate. For a time, as a child, we must venture where no footsteps exist. Our actions, which will become our habits, are entirely our own. Our first steps, our first words, our first laugh, are contrivances of our uncontaminated minds. We are led by no one but our selves, taking our first steps onto the snow, standing alone.

Somewhere along the way, we encounter other footprints: our parents, our friends, our family are walking with us, just a few steps ahead, marking the way. So it is that we learn how to behave, where to go to college, proper table manners, and to brush our teeth before we go to bed. We recognize these footprints as safe. Someone has been here before, so to follow seems natural, once we see the footprints.

Ollin Morales recently wrote a guest piece for Write to Done in which he's sitting in a local coffee shop, observing a girl of about four years, and of whom he says this:

A child like the girl I see at this coffee shop still doesn’t know that there’s anything wrong with squealing with the delight when she feels like squealing with delight. She doesn’t know that there’s anything wrong with running around a coffee shop, and playing an impromptu game of hide-and-go seek with her little brother, when she feels like doing so. She doesn’t know that there are some people out there who might not like what she has to say, or might not even understand what she says—no, a child like the girl at this coffee shop just says what she wants [to] say simply because she wants to say it.

This girl has yet to see the footprints.

The story reminded me of my brother, an adult autistic, who has virtually no social filter. Consequently, he laughs at the most absurd things, and at the most inappropriate times, just because he feels like it. When we go to the movies, his distinct bellowing laugh can be heard echoing through the theater when a character on-screen has just been crushed beneath a flipped car. Usually, this is during a heart-wrenching moment, and his is the only laugh to be heard. Sometimes I tell him to keep his voice down, out of respect for others watching the movie. Other times, I let him laugh until he cries, because I simply can't bring myself to deny him the pleasure of an unfiltered belly laugh.

My brother, too, has yet to see the footprints.

David Karp, founder of Tumblr, was recently the subject of a New York Times piece documenting Tumblr's rise. In following the story, it becomes clear that Karp has a very different mindset, and very different goals in mind for Tumblr than has become the norm for a social media property.

How, then, to encourage feedback while discouraging drive-by hecklers who make you never want to post again? First, Karp notes, you can comment on someone else’s post, by reblogging it and adding your reaction. But that reaction appears on your Tumblr, not the one you’re commenting on. “So if you’re going to be a jerk, you’re looking like a jerk in your own space, and my space is still pristine,” Karp explains. This makes for a thoughtful network and encourages expression and, ultimately, creativity. “That’s how you can design to make a community more positive.”

The result is Tumblr's unique culture of creativity and positivity. Karp is now in a position to revolutionize online advertising, not by maximizing the collection of user data, which has become the standard, but by "following our hearts."

David Karp, clearly, has yet to see the footprints.

No one knows to what extent we are a product of our environment or our genes. What we do know is that, as each of us stands on an endless, pristine plain at our creation, the path gets muddied by those who have gone before us. Those footprints feel safe, and if we follow them long enough, the pristine disappears from our vision. It's still there, though. All we have to do is lift our gaze, take a deep breath, and step onto the pure white snow, where no one has stepped before.

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