At a writer’s retreat some years ago, I was asked to read a favorite poem. I recited Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Having learned it in high school choir, (where we performed its musical arrangement), I thought I knew something about what it meant. A guy goes for a walk, sees two virtually identical paths to take, chooses the less worn one, “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” but doubts he will return. He reflects upon his choice in the final verse:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
“Interesting poem, isn’t it?” our instructor said. “He isn’t saying, ‘I am telling this with a sigh.’ He says, ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh.’ That’s in the future. How does he know that choosing that path will make him sigh, or that it will make any difference?”
While we were pondering that one, he tossed out another. “Notice the title of the poem. It isn’t ‘The Road Less Traveled’ – it’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ The narrator took one path, but the title refers to the one he didn’t take – about which he knows nothing. And he ‘kept the first for another day’ but then said he was unlikely to ever come back. So what’s that all about?”
He then told us that Frost had a friend who was obsessed about the choices he hadn’t made; he was always wondering, ‘what if I’d done this or that instead?’ So this poem is a jab at that kind of thinking. On the surface, it’s a poem about making a choice, but it’s actually more about the choices not made, and the regret that you can’t go back and make them again.
How often have we fallen into this trap? I sure have. I’ve wasted plenty of time wondering ‘what might have been’ as though I might be richer, or more famous, or have more free time (i.e. somehow happier), if I’d made certain decisions differently.
I could have married a different woman (or remained single), or made different investments, or chosen a different career, or bought my dream car 20 years ago, or done any number of other things. But why I should sigh over any of that? How do I know my life would be better or not? Such thinking devalues the blessings I have from making the choices I did – my family and friends, and the fulfillment I get from my job, running, Aikido, and other activities.
What “makes all the difference” is how we build on where we are right now. That road is always available to us. And if a different life vision appeals to you, then I agree with Joseph Campbell: Follow your bliss, and don’t be afraid. But no empty regrets.
Happy New Year!
P.S. For an interesting twist on the subject of choices, I recommend Roads of Destiny, a short story by O. Henry, which should tell you it won’t be ordinary.