Roads not taken

In high school many of us read some of poet Robert Frost’s poems, including his classic “The Road Not Taken.” Its metaphorical power is immense but not forced in a way that would disrupt the simple New England setting. In an age of literary overkill, Frost was the master of artistic understatement. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” to my way of thinking, lyrically and euphonically an even better poem, the poet stops on a snowy road, yielding for a moment to the dark beauties of the deep woods that lure him. To what evil or innocence we cannot know. In any case, the call of duty, repeated for moral emphasis, finally breaks the hypnotic appeal and sends him towards his destination, which can be plainly literal or endlessly symbolic: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

Frost was one of our easier assignments. Even as teenagers we had no trouble picking up the road as a metaphor of life. For who among us has not decided to take one road at a crossroads or in life and pondered later what our destiny would have been if we had chosen the one not taken? Of felt in sidelong looks the temptation of mysterious byways that lure us from our main-road duties?

At such moments we feel the earnestness of life and sense the onrush of time. We cannot linger undecided at the crossroads or stop too long by the wayside. Duties and decisions crowd urgently upon us. And every road taken is also a rejection of another.

Yet pale and past, the rejected roads linger always. The story of our life is more than the sum of our documented episodes and decisions. Modestly, behind the factual content of our life trail the unreal images of other roads we could have taken, other places and persons we could have known, other lives we could have lived.

It is only in view of what we have said no to–and what has said no to us–that we can begin to make sense of human life, our own most of all. Historian Thomas Carlyle said that history does not reveal its alternatives. Perhaps he was not entirely right. For the alternatives remain in an ideal, unreal way as lingering reminders of the magnitude of their sacrifices. For some things must end so that others can begin. The roads not taken, the chances missed or rejected, are not mere nostalgic anecdotes of ancient renunciations but preparations for those we chose to follow. Each of us is a constellation of real and rejected lives. At varying distances from the dramatic center of our being, our chosen and forfeited ideals trace our way through the world. Paradoxically, who we are includes who we could not, or would not, be.

Harold Raley