Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...
Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ is a poem that has been studied in English literature classrooms all over the world. Used as a brilliant example of meandering syntax, a celebration of individualism, a meditation of choice, or a vision of unbounded simultaneity, a rather more simple approach was taken in my classroom.
When explaining to a bunch of fifteen-year-old girls a poem written over 100 years ago by an old American man, the symbolism was clear. According to our teacher, the five stanzas Frost wrote show how he used the forked road as a metaphor for a life decision. He “looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth;” but couldn’t see where each path ended. Frost had a road to walk; he had to move forward and choose one without knowing what would happen.
Each road represented the moral value of the decision: one was the popular, mainstream thing to do, and the other was the admirable choice, having “the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear;”. Through his twenty lines of iambic tetrameter we were taught that this poem categorically upheld the idea of ‘doing the hard thing right, the first time’.
It was inferred that the right thing was unpopular, yet intuitively undeniable and unretractable. We were threatened with his third stanza as a warning: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back,” was cause to seriously consider the repercussions of our actions, because decisions could never be made again.
Maybe it had something to do with the echoes of this parable I’d grown up reading, but this dualistic idea left a serious impression on me.
You’re the only person to have made this decision before.
There is one right way. Don’t get it wrong.
You’ll know which way is right. The noble, unpopular choice is always right.
Once you’ve made your decision, you cannot go back.
As we absorbed critical thinking lessons in our dingy classroom, we also brainstormed ideas about what choice Frost could have been talking about. We hastily tried to apply this logic to flurried practice essays:
“Describe at least one challenge faced by a character or individual in the text. How did this help you to understand the character?”
“Describe the beginning and ending of the text. Explain how the beginning and ending were connected.”
As quickly as the poem was introduced to us, it was overtaken by a character study on Edward Scissorhands. I thought I’d left Frost behind, but he had maintained his grip on me all these years. Recently I was chatting about what I think the future looks like with my counsellor Toni, when she asked, “What are you scared of?”
I had to pause, and think, and think harder.
We started to unpack the question together. I’m scared of the future because I’ve been taught that there is one right decision, and everything else was incorrect/ contemptible/too popular/shameful [insert negative word here]. Choices paralyse me because I behave like a tightrope walker. There is one way forward, and everything else feels like a certain death – whether it is death of my job, my worth, my reputation, my values, my financial means, my relationships… something is going to crumble. To turn back and correct anything is to risk even more.
The voice upstairs threatens quietly, “You can keep moving, as long as you don’t get it wrong.”
You can see why Toni asked me this basic question.
So often, when I write these things down, they seem ridiculous. After being asked that question countless times in our sessions together now, I’ve got to the stage with Toni where I can answer her honestly without feeling stupid, and then we can laugh together at some of the situations I’ve been so paralysed by, because of this idea of right and wrong holding so much weight over me.
Growing up in church, it was very easy to get sucked into this binary way of thinking. Scholars before me have written beautifully on the deconstruction common among young Christians that tries to break down this “dualistic thinking”. Already, this relearning is helping me to make decisions with less weight and fear. It’s also fiercely broadened my understanding of faith. I’ll find the words to write about it sometime.
But for now, I look at Frost’s poem, and I cringe a little. The beauty, impatience, and trust in our own decision making is all in that text, but instead, I was taught just another example of a binary choice, that leads either to better or worse, “some kind of tit-for-tat system of false choices and too-simple contraries”.
Comparison. Opposition. Differentiation.
So to Robert Frost, I want to acknowledge that your poem has meant many things to many people over the years. Your talent is immense and your words are stunning. A teacher and a religion warped those two roads, and this poem turned out to be a terrible metaphor for me.
And as I’ve come to recognise this thinking and the fear it ingrains in my decision making, it’s lit up the areas that I often struggle to understand – in myself, in my actions, and in others. Richard Rohr puts it like this:
“Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience… The dualistic mind cannot process things like infinity, mystery, God, grace, suffering, sexuality, death, or love…”
And these are some of the things I’m much more interested in exploring and coming to understand.