Everyone’s heard the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken. [1]  Often people mistakenly focus on the notion of the path taken being the less traveled route, not the one that others take, or in other words, they see this as being primarily about marching to the beat of your own drummer, doing your own thing.  The poem is really much more basic than that, exploring the feelings we all have whenever we are faced with two very similar choices that will take us in different yet unforeseen directions.

We’ve all been at this cross-roads before.  We have two alternatives, and either one will take us to a place where we can’t simply retrace our steps and do it over.  These are usually big life decisions such as where to go to college, whether to go on a mission or not, what to major in, whom to marry, what jobs to take (or reject), how many kids to have and where to live.  For example, if I go back in time to my high school years, my life would be very different if I had gone to Millersville University, Franklin & Marshall, or Penn State with my friends rather than going clear across the country to BYU.  That decision was early enough in my life that it would have changed many things that followed.  I would have had different friends.  I probably would not have gone on a mission.  I would never have met my current husband.  I may have been my same self in many ways, but I would not have lived the same life and had the same experiences.  On the other hand, I would have had different professors who would influence me in whatever ways they would have.  I would have reacted to my friends and fellow students in whatever ways I would have.  I would have met someone else I would have married.  We can’t know what life would have been like on the other path.  It’s too late for do-overs, even if we wanted them, and there are too many moving parts to predict outcomes, as Marty McFly learns in Back to the Future.

In science fiction, we refer to the idea that our choices can take us to such different places as the multiverse, or the hypothesis that all possible iterations of existence co-exist in parallel or alternate universes.  You can read more about the multiverse concept and its supporters and detractors, here.  Or just watch Star Trek TOS: Mirror, Mirror which is much more entertaining.

While we reflect on what might have been, we usually focus on those big life decisions, but we often forget that those larger decisions came about due to smaller decisions that seem unrelated.  Our lives also changed course due to the various actions and inactions of others.  When I was house-building in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but wonder what about me would be the same and what would be different if I had been born and raised in a rural Cambodian village.  Would I be the same type of person in terms of personality without the environment I was raised in and that I was exposed to in my formative years and beyond?  What if I were illiterate?  What if I struggled daily to survive or lived in a war-torn environment?  What if my family had been abusive?  These are the types of things that are outside of our control, that we take for granted in assessing who we are now, and yet the environment and opportunities we have weren’t our own creation or achievement.  We are in part a byproduct of experiences crafted by the decisions of others.

Lastly, what about indecision?  How much of our lives are lived as a twig in a stream, being carried in the current of status quo?  At any moment, we could radically alter the course of our lives, but we generally don’t.  Our lives have a certain course they are running at a given moment.  Course corrections are usually minor, not life-changing.

There’s a real human tendency to hold the line when it comes to decisions we’ve made.  We instantly seek to justify to ourselves the choices we’ve made.  We look back on jobs we left as though we graduated from them.  Leaving a spouse seems like our eyes were finally opened.  Moving from one house to another makes the flaws of the first house stand out.  Our current decision instantly changes the memory of what once was.  And yet, self-justification is just a human trait that makes it easier for us to live with change.

This isn’t the same as having regrets.  Regrets are when we feel nostalgia for a past event that could have led to a different present.  Regrets can also be when we feel we made a wrong choice, or we didn’t take a risk that we wish we had.  Regrets seem like a time waster, to me, an indulgence.  But a twinge of regret may help us do something better next time.

“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”  Arthur Miller

When you look back on your life decisions, do you regret anything?  Do you wonder what would have been?

Discuss.

[1]  If you haven’t, then read this aloud.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN by 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.