As a new year begins, I’m reflecting on a lot of the choices I’ve made in my life that got me to where I am today. A year ago I decided to end a relationship that could have led toward marriage and kids, I decided to quit my stable job in the entertainment industry and take a completely different one, and I decided to leave the city I had called home for seven years.
There have been tough times of isolation and depression, but there have also been many victories. I have met fascinating people, dated beautiful women, experienced different cultures, cuisines, and climates. I got to spend more time with my family than I had in the last seven years combined. For all that, I am truly grateful.
But in reflecting on my choices, I am reminded of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” The trite excerpt that people plaster on their coffee mugs is usually misinterpreted to be promoting a #YOLO lifestyle, and it’s not even a very long poem. Here, take a quick look for yourself:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
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.
When you read the complete poem closely, its true meaning becomes clearer. This is a man’s lamentation over the choices we must make in our lives, and the finality which follows them. We are often confronted with forks in the metaphorical road, and once made, there is no going back.
In the poem, the traveler regrets not being able to travel both paths, just as we are often pulled between two mutually-exclusive but enticing options. The phrase “And be one traveler” means that he is just one man, and we are bound by our humanness to walk a single timeline. We are just one traveler, and sadly cannot walk both paths concurrently.
In the second and third stanzas the traveler is still torn, trying to look ahead down the paths and figure out if one is better than the other before he decides. At first he thinks one is nicer, but soon realizes they are equal. He hopes to keep the first path for another day, just as we all might selfishly do, but ultimately knows it is a futile hope. We cannot go backward in time, and so metaphorically he will never be able to return to this fork in the road and take that other path. Once his decision is made, it will be forever lost to him.
There is no celebration or braggadocio in Frost’s poem. It is maudlin and nostalgic. The final stanza begins with the line “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” which betrays the speaker’s state of mind. Did the traveler really take the road “less traveled by”? Just a few lines earlier, the poem states “the passing there had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay.”
Rather than being a cocky celebration of adventurousness, the final lines of the poem seem to be more of an external rationalization, something that the traveler tells others to console himself. Even the last line, “and that has made all the difference,” is ambiguous. Could it be that it made a difference, but not necessarily a positive one? Perhaps the traveler is kept up at night wondering what his life would have been had he taken the other path. The choices we make at these decision points in our life do truly make all the difference.
When I have faced big decisions in my life, I have behaved much like Frost’s traveler. I try to stand on my tiptoes, hold a pair of binoculars up to my eyes, and see as far as possible down each path. I hope to maximize my life and make the “best possible decision.” But one thing I’ve learned is that the struggle over making a decision is what causes the most suffering from it. If two choices are really equal, if it is a 50/50 coin flip, then we should feel the least angst over it. Because at that point, it truly doesn’t matter. We have no control over the outcome.
Of course, choosing one path or the other will greatly alter the course of your life. But the nice thing is, you’ll never actually know what the other path would have been. Every single action we choose to perform on every single day creates another splinter, another branch of the tree of possibilities that our life could have been. If we could truly comprehend all of the infinite possibilities of our lives, we would go insane. But what our imagination tells us the other path would have looked like may or may not be reality– we have no way of knowing for sure.
It’s perfectly healthy to make informed, well-reasoned decisions. If neither choice seems preferable to the other, either delay making the decision if that is feasible, or simply choose. Just start “moving your feet” and in a sense, your gut will decide. And once the decision is made, looking back at it will just cause emotional pain and mental anguish. This is what Frost captures so well in the poem, without saying much at all. We can always look back to that yellow wood, which is the terrifying thing about the past– it will always be there, as if carved in stone. The past really is forever, and so it is important to not let it become a constant burden you must carry, or a vulture constantly stalking you and waiting for you to succumb.
In my own decision between marrying a good girl or continuing to enjoy my bachelorhood– a decision that most men today have probably grappled with– there have been times I convince myself I made the right decision, and times I’ve told myself I made a horrible mistake. But whenever I am looking back, I am in pain. The answer is to accept it and more importantly, to stop thinking about it altogether.
To do this, you might need to develop new habits and start noticing whenever your thoughts drift toward this unhelpful place. By observing it consciously, you are more likely to be able to nip it in the bud, and redirect your thoughts elsewhere. You should come up with some kind of protocol for how to refocus, such as a physical activity, meditation/mantras, or another positive subject. It might also help to embrace gratitude and think of three things you’re grateful for every time you start to feel down and doubt yourself.
Just as Frost acknowledged, these decisions, once made, are permanent. Life only moves in one direction. Perhaps there will be some surprise twists of fate ahead, but if they are truly out of your control, you can do nothing but walk the path and stay present.
And maybe I knew a little too well what the path would have looked like if I went down the road to marriage at that particular point. Of course, we never truly know, but in a sense I felt that I even knew what the surprises would be. For me, staying single was the “road less traveled by,” the one that held a bit more of the unknown. In the end, the two paths would probably end up being a wash. They’ll both have ups and downs, moments of struggle and loneliness, moments of transcendent triumph. They definitely share a terminal point, so I’ll end up in the same place either way.
But I never would have been at peace knowing that this path had never been walked. There are plenty of times now that I think of that fork in the road, and imagine what the other path would have been. And it is extremely painful. But I think had it been the other way around, it would have been even worse. I don’t think I could have lived in a healthy, functional way, and my soul would have been calling out to make a run for it. Even if it was self-destructive, that is what my heart wanted on some level.
So I guess I had to see it for myself, this thing I now call my life. It hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, it has been boring, it has been painful, it has been joyful, hilarious, elating, challenging, meditational, ordinary and extraordinary all at once. But I’m here now, this is my path, and there is no going back.
I imagine at some point in the not-too-distant future I’ll come to two other roads diverging in a yellow wood, and I hope that I will have learned from this experience. There may be no such thing as the “right” decision, but there is a right way to make, and live with, your decisions. Every human being must confront what Frost’s traveler did in his poem, and we will all carry the weight of our choices forward in one way or another. There is no solution but to keep on living, appreciative to have had the chance to walk any path at all.