I’m one of those people who, when I encounter a fork in a path in the woods, regret that I cannot travel down both paths. It bothers me that I don’t know where the other path goes. Maybe it’s something great — a waterfall or scenic view — but alas, we cannot be in two places at once. I must take my chances, choose a path and stick to it.
It’s a classic conundrum. In “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost writes,
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
Paralyzed by a fork in the road, Frost has captured the very spirit of indecisiveness. Or perhaps it’s the gluttonous consumerist spirit. We want to experience both paths and, like a dog dropping the bone in his mouth because he sees another bone reflected in the water, we lose both. Maybe if I were to rewrite this poem I would place myself in an all-night diner staring at all the pictures of pancakes, waffles, and french toast. Put that menu in front of me and I want it all.
The poem famously ends with the poet’s reflection on having taken the road less traveled. Generations of motivational speakers and homilists have urged us to the do the same. That’s fine, as far as that goes. Take either path that suits you, I suppose, and the less traveled path can indeed have its rewards.
The other roads
But the funny thing is, the poem is titled “The Road Not Taken.” In other words, he decided on one road, but years later he’s still thinking about the other road. As David Orr writes at Lithub, “The title isn’t about what he did; it’s about what he didn’t do.”
If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve probably made a huge, life-changing decision. You’ve decided on a college to attend, or to not attend college at all. Maybe you’ve moved to a new city for a new job. I know people take the plunge to plight their troth and get married — I know I’m married and somehow made that decision. We make huge decisions like this all the time, but they’re such a daunting life-choices that I’m fascinated by our ability to make them.
Further, I’m amazed by the fact that I’ve never regretted or second-guessed the decision to get married, even for an instant. At the time I proposed, we were both 19 years old and a number of people cautioned us about our young age. None of that mattered. There was never a doubt in my mind.
After we married, Amber and I have made a number of big decisions together. We moved across the country from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to New Haven, Connecticut, so I could attend seminary. We made the decision after that to move to Cape Cod, where I took a job pastoring a small Anglican church. We decided to buy a house and have a child. We decided to keep having children – six of them. We converted to Catholicism together, moved across the country again, I entered the discernment process to be ordained a Catholic priest, and we bought and sold a few more houses. All of this with no hesitation or regrets. I can’t say that I have, even one single time, looked back on my life and imagined an alternate set of choices.
The reason that big decisions are on my mind is because this Friday is the feast of the Annunciation. This is when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son as a virgin. Imagine the second-guessing she and Joseph must have done?
Joseph, to use modern parlance, needed a minute. He turned over the scenario in his mind – the embarrassment, the social implications, the toll on his family, and the necessity of protecting the purity of Mary even after she was his wife. In the end, he agreed. As far as we know, he never regretted his decision.
Mary, too, had a lot to think about. What was asked of her was daunting. It was a huge decision and one that, even after it was made, she spent years pondering in her heart. She never regretted her decision, either.
Our choices change us. A single, life-defining decision is a natural extension of personal development. Looking back on my choices, why would I regret the person I’ve become? Why question if who I am isn’t good enough? Sure, maybe our choices have taken us down difficult roads, maybe a choice even turned out to be a mistake, but choices make us who we are and there’s no regretting that.
Humility is the secret
There’s humility in making a choice. We cannot have everything or be everything. I am who I am, with all my flaws and personality quirks and limitations. This is the secret to making big decisions and not regretting them. Don’t regret who you are. Don’t yearn for the road not taken and wish you’d become someone different.
Knowing how personal decision-making is, the advice of writers like St. Ignatius of Loyola becomes eminently practical. Essentially, he says, purify your desires, imagine the person you want to become and the life you want to live, don’t be distracted by what other people are doing, get rid of unhealthy attachments. Ignatius is saying that we must know ourselves. This way, when we stand at a fork in the road, we aren’t brought to a standstill by fear and doubt. Live your life. Only you can live it.