Andersen: Following roads less traveled
Robert Frost nailed it in just four stanzas. His poem, “The Road Not Taken,” describes how life is determined by an aggregate of decisions that form a path through time and space. Here’s an example:
In the early 1970s, a young Baby Boomer flirted with The Establishment. He had long hair, a budding social conscience and nascent environmental passion. He was intrigued with cultural sophistication, classic literature, romantic films, and by the class privileges that were doled out to those who complied and those who strove.
That young man was me — a naïve wanderer on the eve of formative events and decisions that would guide my life to roads less traveled.
At 21, my road included a subway ride from the suburbs where I grew up to LaSalle Street, in the heart of Chicago’s financial district. Riding the up escalator, I emerged into a canyon built of Gothic stone and towering skyscrapers, throbbing with the noise and smells of commerce.
I was nervous filling out an application at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith. As a failed college student, a mail-room position was the only job offered by the man in the gray flannel suit. My long hair was a strike against me, but I applied anyway.
My wife and I mused over my “road not taken” last week while camping at a remote desert canyon in Utah, a place of great beauty and deep quiet. The campfire crackled, a half-moon shone down, stars glittered, and a canyon rim formed a ragged silhouette against the deep purple horizon.
Growing up in a northern suburb of Chicago, my surroundings held the promise of wealth and prestige. Wilmette, Winnetka, Kenilworth and a sprawl of elite suburbs stretching along the bluffs of Lake Michigan displayed homes of style and elegance that described a materialistic ideal.
At the hallowed gates, sweating with anxiety, I waited for the anticipated verdict. The man in the suit told me I had failed the mail-room test — good-bye. Failure at age 21 was grueling as I stepped out onto busy sidewalks. Without prospects, the city became cold and heartless.
Had I cut my hair and worn a suit, things might have been different. If only I had finished school! My hippie image had led me down a road of lost opportunities.
Had I sorted mail for stockbrokers, had I risen through the ranks and earned the keys to the corporate bathroom, had I taken a swank apartment on Michigan Avenue, season tickets to Orchestra Hall, membership at the Art Institute … would life have been better? Instead, I took “the road less traveled” and, as Frost wrote, “that has made all the difference.”
There are results to every choice. My choices led me from an urbane paper chase to the silence of canyons and the grandeur of mountains. They took me to rural communities instead of vast cities. I have no regrets over that mail-room job, just curiosity about who I might have been.
“Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back.” Frost wondered if we have second chances. In micro decisions, yes. In big decisions, no — they often lead to one-way streets.
Roads that appear worn are “just as fair,” wrote Frost. But those that seem “grassy and wanted wear … in leaves no step had trodden black” have always appealed more to me than the rutted track.
It is impossible to foresee the results of cumulative decisions, whether for individuals or for complex societies, cities and states. Sometimes, the chosen roads are merely braided paths that stray off, only to merge back later to the worn, predictable, beaten track.
Decisions are often weighed in reflective values: right or wrong, good or bad. To Frost, our choice of roads is beyond value judgments. Our decisions mark only a “difference” for us as we tread on leaves blackened by our own footsteps.
“And sorry I could not travel both/and be one traveler, long I stood …,” lamented Frost. One may only stand so long before choosing, or before a choice is made for us. Then comes living with our choices — and looking down our twisting road 45 years later.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.