There’s a rather famous poem by Robert Frost called “The Road Not Taken.” Most people who read it tend focus on the end and admire the fact that he went in a direction most people didn’t go. The idea is that he is a pioneer, a nonconformist, a rebel, a risk-taker. I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.
Well, that’s not what I focus on. It was what I focused on when I read it in high school English class, but what I focus on now is the first bit: And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler
I recently saw a little-known but rather well-done movie called Seeing Other People, in which a newly engaged woman with very little sexual experience witnesses spontaneous stranger sex at her engagement party and then decides she wants a temporary open relationship with her fiancé to sow her wild oats (and allow him to re-sow his, just to be fair). In the end, you’re left wondering if the couple might have been better off not having tried the experiment, or was actually better off for having tried it.
This is how life is for me. I, like Frost, am sorry I cannot travel both roads. I chose to avoid illegal drugs. I chose to not drink until I was of legal age. I chose to do (relatively) well in school. I chose to be a smartass to my teachers. I chose to become a teacher. I made a decision to quit teaching. There are various paths I’ve taken, none of which I regret. I’ve never thought, “If only I had been a druggie drunk academic delinquent who didn’t talk back to teachers and never was employed; then, my life would be so much better.” That line of thinking, that kind of regret means you still had to choose one path but simply chose the wrong one.
What I’m sorry about is not being able to travel both roads. I know people who want to try everything and experience everything, but you can’t experience everything, because sometimes the lack of experience in something is an experience itself. George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life thinks he’s missing out on all these world travels and exciting parties and war glories his brother and others get to experience. He thinks he’s stuck in a small town not getting any experience, but he is getting an experience. He’s experiencing what it’s like to be in a small town and be a fundamental part of that community.
I’m equally fascinated by both people who have traveled all over the world and lived in many different countries, and people who have lived in one town for decades and been one of many in a long family line who have lived in that same town. I want both those experiences and everything in between. I want to know what’s it’s like to be faithful to my wife until one of us dead. But I also want to know what’s it’s like to feel the pain of one of us cheating on the other. The two are mutually exclusive. And, no, being faithful for only a decade or two and then cheating isn’t experiencing both—it’s really just the latter.
I loved going to one college all four years. But I’d have loved to have gone to another college as well for all four years. No, transferring every year for four years is not the same experience. As they say, “You have only one life to live.”
What’s even more psychologically frustrating isn’t that, like Frost, you can’t go down both roads; what’s even more frustrating is that there really isn’t a road that is not taken. If you can think of it, someone’s done it. As Eccelesiastes says, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” You think you’re a crazy sex maniac who has slept with 1000 people. Well, there are other sex maniacs out there. You think you’re a crazy chaste maniac who has slept with nobody and never will until you die. Well, there are other virgins-till-death out there, too. “New” in this life basically means new ways of doing the same thing or pushing the limits of quantity (running the same distance but more quickly; running a slightly longer distance).
So what do I do about all this road business? Well, first of all, I don’t pretend anything is new. I’m content to go down roads others have gone down before. More importantly, I find the next best thing to travelling more than one road. I don’t know if C.S. Lewis actually said this in real life or not, but in the movie Shadowlands, Lewis says “We read to know we’re not alone.” I think the implication of that is that we want to know others have shared the same experiences we have, felt the same feelings, thought the same thoughts. That can be one reason to read. I read for the opposite reason: I read to experience vicariously what I have not experienced. I read to know that we are varied and to take advantage of that fact. This is why I’m mainly drawn to non-fiction. I love hearing people’s stories.
A multitude of roads diverged in a wood, and I got friends and strangers together and said, “Hey, let’s all go down different roads and then meet back up and share our stories.” And that has made all the difference.