There are some things that are a mystery when you are on the ground but which can become far more visible when looked at from a great distance. For example, when one looks from the sky or from space, it is much easier to see the traces of old roads that once drew people together and which do not even remain in memory. Yet often even if a particular route is not remembered, there are traces of it that survive in the landscape. Many contemporary British highways follow the traces of Roman roads, for example, and it is possible that many of these Roman roads in Great Britain and elsewhere followed earlier routes. The Way of the Kings and the Via Maris (or Way of the Sea) still are important highways in Jordan and Israel, respectively, and regimes as disparate as Pharonic Egypt (at least two times), the British and Ottoman Empires, and pre-captivity Judah have fought battles in Megiddo because of the importance of these routes. It is not merely that we as human beings are creatures of habit individually, but that the sameness of our journeys creates ruts and patterns that dramatically shapes future transportation as well, so that people follow routes generation after generation for centuries and millennia on end without any awareness that they are traveling routes that have an almost inevitable feel to them.
The same is true when one looks at aspects of literature. For a set of complex and somewhat unpleasant personal reasons I have been reading a lot of literature by the survivors of the Holocaust and other systems of industrial imprisonment and murder, and there is a certain sameness of this sort of material in a way that resonates strongly with me. Even across prison systems as disparate as that of Nazi Germany, contemporary China, or Soviet Russia, there are patterns to the suffering that people undergo. For one, there is a logistical aspect to this suffering that involves transportation routes that are capable of bringing millions of people from their homes and workplaces to some forsaken place that is far from the eyes of people who might think themselves to be in danger by being around those who have been doomed to years or even decades of harrowing suffering in a prison camp and that can simultaneously bring the products of the labor of these doomed souls or even their bodies for the use and profit of the totalitarian regimes who have destroyed their lives. For another, there are ways that the guards must use people on the inside who are privileged prisoners to help keep order, and the ways that people maintain a sense of dignity and a sense of the deep spiritual battle that is involved in the sort of institutionalized inhumanity that these camps represent.
It is not merely our works of great human achievement like buildings and walls and monuments that leaves a trace on the world, or even the mundane habits of our lives, and the paths that we travel hither and yon in the course of our existence, but even our inhumanity to others leaves a trace. A chance dig in the earth to build a car park or apartment complex may bring up the bones of those whose deaths have long been forgotten. The ruins of slave forts and concentration camps provides mute testimony to the evils that took place there. In the historical memory of the descendants of survivors, in the anxieties and worries that are passed down from generation to generation and even in the horrors of PTSD that linger on for decades for those who have survived what no one should have to endure, the traces of suffering linger on as well. Even when the particular incidents have been forgotten, and people may no longer know exactly what they have to forgive to find peace, something of the nature of the loss and suffering that people go through is passed down even when the story is missing that would provide the context that would allow it all to make sense.
It is appealing for many people to think that we are born with a tabular rasa, but it is not true. Instead, at best we are palimpsests, marked by what has been drawn or written in generations past and seemingly wiped away, leaving us to make our own marks, only to leave a trace remaining of what was present before that we may not see or may not want to see. It is not that we are slaves to repeat the mistakes or endure the same suffering that our forebears did, although for all too many of us that happens, but the actions as well as the experiences of those who came before us leave traces inside of us that shape and influence our decisions and our choices and our approach to existence. Those who have stared into the abyss and have been touched by the horrors it contains are permanently changed as a result, and that change often brings with it an ability to recognize others who have also been touched by the same shadow, and an ability to recognize similar insights. Something is gained when that fundamental aspect of human naivite that the world is made up of fundamentally good and decent people is lost, an awareness of the terrain of spiritual warfare where we must take up arms against despair and against the foul powers of hell and must seek help in that struggle wherever it can be found, be it in the mute heavens above or in the encouragement of others who fight the same battle alongside us. The traces of our tears eventually create the channels by which the rivers of the Spirit can travel through our lives and touch those around us who may not know or want to know the weight we carry on our weary shoulders but who appreciate the good that we bring anyway.