In the course of teaching for over twenty-five years I have sometimes met students who suffered from an excess of interests. Not that being curious about life and wanting to follow many different roads is wrong—far from it. But for these students the thought of tying themselves down to a particular major and a specific employment track is agony. There is a lot of pressure on them to conform, too. Parents look at the tab running up at the Student Accounts office and wonder what their hard-earned money has to show for it. Friends who are less encumbered by curiosity and more disposed to follow a single childhood dream nod and make sympathetic noises, but privately shake their heads. Teachers look askance at a fifth-year senior who gives no indication of settling into a prescribed course of classes leading to graduation.
In talking to these students it is clear that they are not without goals and motivation. On the contrary, they have many goals and they are highly motivated. What is particularly difficult for them, however, is the idea that going down one road shuts them off forever from traveling on other roads. At this point Robert Frost’s poignant words chime in: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.”
In three phrases Frost tugs at some assumptions we hold. The first is that choices are more or less forced upon us; roads diverge and we must choose. The second is that the less traveled road is more interesting. Or maybe it’s that we want to be thought of as the interesting person who took that road. And the third assumption is that it matters immensely. It matters so much that we might as well chant, “This is the first day of the rest of my life.”
There are two schools of thought on this. The first, which I call the apocalyptic, says that every decision has ultimate significance. No act is trivial, all are of equal importance, but some decisions—like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm—are more equal than others. There is no time for experimentation, no room for mistakes. Every decision implies a judgment.
The other perspective is the dynamic one. In this view, most decisions have a cumulative effect rather than an immediate one. A slip here, a missed opportunity there—over the course of time it adds up—but each day we are given a new start with new possibilities. It’s not that this perspective encourages recklessness or irresponsibility, either. People who believe this show up for appointments, pay their bills, and make plans for the future. But they do so believing that we define the significance of our moments instead of the gusts of history. It is a modest view of one’s role in the world, for who can know what history will judge as the liminal points of our time? Instead of the tyranny of future expectations they are intent on doing their best in the possibilities of the present. Think of it as a light-footed dance instead of a stolid march.
Thus we circle back to our assumptions. Diverging roads bring us what William James called a ‘forced option:’ we have choices but they are limited and we cannot not choose. Not choosing is in fact having made a choice, James reasons, and asks whether we wouldn’t rather do our best with what we’ve got. The second assumption is that the less familiar is the more interesting, a natural result of curiosity and blissful ignorance. But the whole game rests on the third assumption that everything we do has eternal significance and either impels us forward to the finish line or sends us sprawling far short of the mark.
But there are no straight lines in life, at least none we can see from beginning to end. We ride on a wave of rising ellipses, up and back and down, but ever forward through our moment of time. On the way we carry the certainty of death inside the travel pack of our present. Traveling in this way demands reason and patience, but it also calls for courage and hopefulness. When the road diverges, as it must, gather your true self in the moment and follow the you you want to become.
As one of those students, at least in days gone by, I appreciate your remarks.
Truly a dynamic approach seems more gentle. Easy does it. Intention mixed with the most authentic version of ourselves at the present moment; rinse and repeat!Bert:
Good one, Barry. Though there are days I wonder about the wisdom of so proceeding, I have been a practicioner of the dynamic school of thought. I'm 57 and my 27-year-old daughter still asks me from time to time (I think I perceive it's with a gleam in her eye), "Dad, what are you going to do when you grow up?" There have been two bachelors degrees, 1 1/2 masters degrees, and numerous jobs in at least three identifiable career paths since high school, and I still don't know the answer to my daughter's question. I think I am qualified to say, however, that the apocalyptic school of thought is not the only way forward.David Lamp:
Barry, I can certainly empathize with the dynamic choices in life though I must admit that the apocolyptic choice has all too often limited my comfort!
I just finished an interesting work that helps explain--at least from a science-fiction point of view--what might be going on within the dynamic perspective. David Ambrose (2008) has written an interesting story of how these choices might interact in his first novel "The Man Who Turned Into Himself" by exploring the implications of the "many worlds" theory of quantum physics to every-day life. There's much we don't know about the "road less traveled" but one thing is certain--the choices are always instructive.
Ambrose, D. (2008) The Man Who Turned Into Himself. New York: Picador Books.