The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken (Robert Frost)

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.

If I have developed any distinctive competency in my life, it is likely the capacity to imagine possibilities — to draw on my study of a very broad range of subjects and make connections, and hence identify what might be possible, and what might have been possible.

This is a bit paradoxical in light of my current belief that we have no free will, and that therefore things have happened, and will happen, in the only way they possibly could have. There are no possibilities, except in our imaginations.

A recent article by the Ideas Editor (is that a dream job or what?) of the New Yorker, Joshua Rothman, explores how we think about the possibility that our lives might have turned out differently, and the impact of our choices and non-choices, and concludes that we define ourselves and our dreams for the future largely on the basis of what we have not chosen to do (at least yet) and what has not happened yet but might — “We seem to find meaning in what’s never happened. Our self-portraits use a lot of negative space.”

He notes that while Robert Frost claims his choice between the two roads made “all the difference”, in the end “it doesn’t matter what the difference is”.

In his hit song Baby Boom Baby, James Taylor writes: “How come I miss what I never knew? / Drag out the past just to paint it blue / Spend my days with a dream of you.” Thinking of past loves and dreams, which are actually all fictions, that song still, always, brings tears to my eyes.

So does another song, by Christine Lavin, The Kind of Love You Never Recover From: “At times like this when the moon is right / When the air is foggy like it is tonight / She’ll think about what might have been / If she had just held on to him… So here am I looking at you / Oh tell me, what are we gonna do? / Am I destined to be a regret? /Are you that one I will never forget?”

It’s interesting that songs with this theme of other possible choices are always replete with questions. The Muppets’ song Rainbow Connection, about future possibilities, is full of unanswerable questions.

Joshua notes that “The butterfly effect works in reverse: [Everything that actually happened] had to happen—in fact, everything had to go a certain way.” The road not taken was, in a sense, never there.

One writer that Joshua refers to in his article suggests that the western cults of individualism and capitalism, both of which emphasize ever more personal choices, have exacerbated the anguish we feel about other choices we supposedly might have made. The more choices we seem to have, the more sub-optimal choices there are, and the less likely it is we will choose the most optimal.

And then there are the related issues of shame and regret about past supposed choices, and the endless stress over the choices we feel we have to make, now or soon or eventually, to ensure a happy future for ourselves and our loved ones. Our relationship with time, in that respect, seems to me entirely unhealthy — our imagined pasts filled with false nostalgia and crippling regret, and our imagined futures filled with self-doubt and dread.

As someone blessed and cursed with a seemingly-unlimited and hyperactive imagination, I often think about the emergence of imagination as an evolutionary trait. I used to watch Chelsea the dog running in her sleep, her paws moving involuntarily in motion that clearly mimicked pursuit, even while she was lying on her side, quietly yipping. Surely she was dreaming, imagining something that might have happened, or might one day happen, or even something that could never happen but which, in that unconscious moment, seemed definitely to be happening. So I don’t think imagination is a uniquely human trait.

Presumably it emerged to allow us to plan for eventualities that had not yet happened, and to learn from those that had passed — what might have gone differently and what we can take from that. If so, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I think it was a spandrel — an accidental experiment of very large and not overly busy brains, one that has continued to emerge in each new generation of humans not because it’s of any use, but because there’s nothing currently or yet important enough for our mostly idle brains to do instead.

There are compelling arguments that imagining is just too energy-demanding, imprecise, and slow a process to have actually helped our species survive in the face of life’s immediate, life-threatening crises. Nice try, Mother Nature, but this seems a very expensive failure. It allows us to imagine possibilities, most of them actually impossible or impracticable, and many of them terrifying, immobilizing, traumatizing, inactionable, over-simplified or, well, just unrealistic.

Without imagination there could not be regret, or envy, or shame, or a host of other negative emotions that don’t serve us at all well. But there would also be no fantasy, no aspiration, and probably no perseverance.

Our selves are, if anything, stories — imagined plots about imagined characters. We create them to make sense of the world and our perceptions and conceptions about it. When we don’t like our lot we are urged to create a different, better story, which is to say imagine one and use it to motivate us to pursue its realization. What a fool’s errand that is!

My life used to be filled with regrets, envy, shame, indecision, second-guessing, day-dreaming, fantasizing, and other forms of longing for what was not, or is not, or will not ever be. As I get older these feelings and activities take up less and less space in me. I think that’s exhaustion more than wisdom. I’m no longer taken with stories much, my own or others’, whether they’re about a fictitious past or a fictitious future or a fictitious other world, no matter how artfully they’re made. They are lies, propaganda, over-simplifications, false promises. They are distractions from what is in favour of what might be, or might have been. Children and idealists and ideologues and optimists seem to love them, but to me they seem increasingly useless, empty.

Why do we want to be told stories, especially as children? Why do we like to imagine what might have been, or might one day be, or might be somewhere far, far away, when what is, right here, right now, is so astonishing, and mostly unnoticed? What is it about our sense of wonder that its focus is so easily seized from the real world and redirected to distraction from the real world in the invention of other, false realities?

And what would it be like to break through the veil of our illusions of choice and alternate possibilities, to escape the sad, limited, invented story of our selves, and to simply be, like Chelsea, and like the madly soaring flock of hundreds of pine siskins outside my window, right here, right now, beyond imagining — one with everything?

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4 Responses to The Road Not Taken

  1. Anne says:

    I love this! Thank you so much.

  2. Nathan Shepperd says:

    I like that – I wonder about age and weariness leading to some kind of wisdom about all the striving and ambition. For me it manifests more as seeing a huge bulk of thoughts appearing to the mind as “junk” stories or imaginings and often irritating- like imps jumping around tugging at my trousers for attention. Funnily enough an imaginative way of visualising what those thoughts “are” despite it being hard to see a thought as anything at all.

    I think using a personification of “Mother Nature” is interesting – about imagination being an “expensive failure” – there isn’t any need for “nature” to be anything like “optimal”. I’ve seen arguments about “efficiency” but often survival of a species seems to relate to overwhelming in numbers where the survival of an individual is irrelevant. Half a population can become food of the remainder results in species surviving. And that isn’t even a “goal” either.

    At least the human societies we have lived in are obsessed with goals. Clearly Genghis Khan imagined a huge empire and killed lots of people to get one. Maybe it chimes with that point about nature – a species can survive for some time despite trying to kill itself off in some cases. Then I think about human history being a tiny blip in life in earth.

    Imagination seems important to us but the human version of it isn’t likely to last long.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Nathan: Thanks. Yes, absolutely. When I talk about the evolution of imagination as being an “expensive failure” I mean that in terms of its cost in the huge scale of destruction of life on earth that has sprung from human activity. Nature is, by ‘nature’, profligate and full of redundancy, and not concerned with ‘success’ or ‘failure’ but merely with the continuation of what seems to work, to ‘fit in’, and the discontinuation of what does not. That seems to be the rules of the game, for no necessary reason.

    I would love to know what it was like to live in ancient times. We have been proved so utterly wrong in everything we once thought about prehistory (the whole Hobbesian ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ crap). And now the theory that we humans lived a million years (until just 4000 ya) without the capacity to conceive of ourselves as separate and having personal identities, and did just fine without that capacity. We only hear about the big battles and conquests that wiped out nations and cultures and languages. Were ancient peoples really all about war and conquest, and if so, when there was an abundance of food and land, why? We of course can never know, but to me, like most of the bull we’re taught in history, the dominant story seems self-serving and just doesn’t seem to add up.

  4. Christopher Vandyck says:

    > Why do we want to be told stories, especially as children?

    Picture books give children the chance to talk about stuff with their parents. I even remember that hanging out in the greeting card aisle was a really big boon to me, when it came to discussing ideas with my Mom.

    Having a voice, is the most important thing about being a kid.

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