Let’s get started in the cheesiest way possible — with the American Classic, “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost, often misidentified as “The Road Less Traveled.” It goes …
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.
I first read this poem for an English assignment in 7th grade, 1996, the days of Netscape navigator and Encarta. That’s right, Encarta! Before there was Wikipedia, there was Encarta, the O.G. of online encyclopedias. Trip down memory lane aside, I’d be lying if I said the poem had any kind of huge impact on me or my life back then, nor did I really pay it any more attention than was needed to get the job done. But, it did put Robert Frost and the poem itself on my radar.
My loose affiliation with the poem led me to a very vague and basic but common conclusion in regards to its meaning and it goes a little something like: dare to be different, blaze your own trail, do not conform, a call to action for all who exclaim “I’m an individual, dammit!” #Mondaymotivation type stuff. (Literally just before I sat down to write this, I found exactly this interpretation on Instagram, completely by chance … or was it?)
But, this interpretation is wrong. Look, I’m not reinventing any wheel by pointing this out. A quick Google search will come up with tons of results from writers and critics, far more qualified than I, breaking this point down. Robert Frost himself has called the poem “tricky” and often misinterpreted.
The real theme behind the poem, at least according to much of what I read, and apparently to Frost, lies in the idea of regret. The thought that the grass is always greener on the other side. The constant necessity to assign meaning to each and every little decision, important or not. We already know from the second to last stanza, the penultimate, if you will (that’s right, I used penultimate in a sentence), that really, both roads appear exactly the same. There’s no real way of knowing what row to hoe. The last stanza is almost a sad one to me. A glimpse into the future of regret where the narrator is almost trying to convince him/herself that he/she made the “right” and “brave” decision in this moment of choice. He/she is assigning a lot of meaning, after the fact, to a decision that really was indistinguishable from any other.
It’s that regret, or fear of, that I’m interested in. The initial road is the status quo: life on full auto pilot. The “diverge” is action vs. non action. When we’re faced with making decisions, the tendenacy, at least with me, has/can be to weigh every single possible outcome, think deeply about how each choice could affect us, negatively and positively, constantly spending time and effort toiling over every aspect of every choice, until, there we are. Years down the road, never having made any real decision at all, still coasting on auto pilot, never having taken any risk. I’ve know this place intimately.
Really, what “The Road Not Taken” is trying to convey to me is just making a choice, ANY choice. Don’t be paralized by the fear of regret leading you to inaction. And if a moral needs to be acribed to it, than that moral is to not look back, only forward, and be confident that the choices you make are the “right” choices because you made it that way, not because of some metaphysical “right” vs “wrong”.
There’s a line from a song my grandfather used to sing. It goes “put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walking out the door.” I can hear him singing it in my head …
…I think I get it now.