I have a vivid memory of myself at about 14 years old. I was standing in my kitchen looking out the window staring the crossroad that split in two directions just outside my backyard. I couldn’t help but look at that fork in the road and wonder about my future. I specifically remember the moment and the uncertainty I felt for the first time about the outcome of my life. The feeling that the entire universe was filled with crossroads, and how would I know which ones to take? That soon I would be making decisions for myself, all by myself. It was as if this was the first time the “young me” realized that there would be an “old me.” That the “young me” had no idea who the “old me” would be, and I felt pressure that I better pick the right path. I squinted out that kitchen window with the hope that I would see something that would give me a hint as to what my road of choice would bring me. There were no hints, just a crossroad that lie before me.
As an English teacher, I used to teach Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Traveled.” In it a man comes to a fork in the road while traveling in the woods and looks down both paths and can’t quite decide which road to take. I was recently hiking and came to a literal fork in the forest road, and I was again reminded of Frost’s poem. There were two paths in front of me. Like the poem, two roads that “diverged in a yellow wood,” and this crossroad metaphor resurfaced with me again. As adults the decisions we are forced to make become more complicated, more uncertain, more difficult. We are trying to navigate so many things that can usually, when boiled down to their essence, provide two opposite options. Go or stay. Quit or persevere. Open or close. Do it or don’t do it. Ask or wait. Stop or move. 0 or 1. A or B.
But crossroads, like life, are uncertain. And uncertainty means that you realize you are now the “old me” and no longer the “young me” and you have to start making decisions for yourself. So you pick a road and start moving forward. Sometimes the road seems really exhausting because it is all uphill. At times it feels like there are branches that are out to get you. With each step you take, you think you may stumble and fall and break your leg. But even when the road gets narrow, you remind yourself to stop to look at the beauty along the road. You notice if you breath deeper the road becomes even more clear around you. You see new leaves you have never seen before and wonder what type of plant they belong to. When you’re not sure if you’re on the right road and feel lost or confused, you notice a small white diamond painted on a tree reminding you that you are still headed in the right direction. You are filled with wonder at the beauty of a well-worn path that curves perfectly around a bend. You learn that some roads are created by the dedication of those who walked before you and carved out their own road. When you pass other travelers, you smile and greet each other knowing that we are all traveling on our own version of the road, learning different lessons and seeking to appreciate the moment. You pick up an empty bottle somebody left behind and put it in its proper place because you want to leave the road better for the next traveler.
And then you realize, that by appreciating the wonder of the road, while you are on it in that moment, you have truly embraced living for the journey and not the destination.
Sometimes, somehow, under the most unusual circumstances, you have found yourself on the road with a traveling companion. Walking in tandem at times and side-by-side at other times. You travel together enjoying the time on the current road even though you don’t know when the road will end or where the road will take you. But for this moment you are on the road, together, and you appreciate it right now. The shared experience brings momentary insight. Your traveling companion can provide an extra hand to lift you up when you take a misstep, someone to grab your shoes for you so your feet don’t get dirty after you step into the river, or a reminder to look up and see the pretty flowers on the tree you wouldn’t have noticed because you have been looking down, simply focused on just taking the next step. Because the road, like life, is hard and at times the journey just feels really long.
Sometimes I want to, like the narrator of the poem, travel both roads. He is “sorry he could not travel both.” Like him, I want it all. I want to assess and be certain that the road I am choosing is the right one, will provide the best benefits, and guarantee me the outcome that I so desire. However, I don’t want to waste all day standing at the crossroad, paralyzed unable to make a decision. So, I put one foot in front of the other and start walking into uncertain territory.
We don’t get to know what the outcome of the road we choose will be. When the road is unknown in front of me, I long to know the ending. When the road lies behind me, I seek to find meaning and understand the experience. Frost’s poem refutes the idea that the road we choose determines the outcome of our life, yet we will tell the story about that road to others. Perhaps with a sigh. Perhaps with embellishments. Perhaps with the notion that the road we chose made “all the difference.”
Instead of believing that I “chose the road less traveled and that has made all the difference,” I will choose to believe that there is no road less traveled, so I will enjoy the one I am currently on and make the very most of each step I take.