The Road Not Taken

Maybe it’s a function of my age, but not long ago when I reread Robert Frost’s classic poem, “The Road Not Taken,” the last two lines of the third stanza stood out in a way they haven’t before: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back.” The lines got me thinking: what if I had made different choices at specific points in my life? Wouldn’t it be interesting to go back to various decision points (when “two roads diverged”) and this time make the other choice?

For example, what if I had pursued my childhood goal of becoming a nurse? As I look back, the decision to change my college major from pre-nursing to English was a major turning point and fundamentally altered the trajectory of my life. Of course, it’s not possible to go back to where the two roads diverged and choose the other route, and it’s hard to speculate on what would have happened had I become a nurse. It’s a lot easier to think about what quite likely would not have happened if I hadn’t changed my major to English.

Graduate school, dating and marriage: Changing my major to English at the end of my freshman year meant that I didn’t have to leave Messiah College after two years to go to nursing school. It also meant I needed to figure out what to do with an English major. High school teaching became the default, but because I was only 20 years old when I graduated from college, I thought I was too young to start teaching high school right away. Going to graduate school immediately after college made a lot of sense, not only to age me a couple of years but also to give me the added credentials of a master’s degree.

The first few months of graduate school on the other side of the country in Moscow, Idaho were difficult. I didn’t know anyone and I was lonely and homesick, so when my friend Mary wrote telling me about a conversation her mother had with Dale’s mother in which my future mother-in-law said she thought Dale (who was teaching in Zambia) would like to hear from me, I jumped at the chance to reach out to another classmate. I had not dated much to that point in my life, and I think I was already beginning to resign myself to being single. In hindsight that seems a little silly, given that I was only 20 years old, but at the time, it seemed like a reasonable conclusion given my almost total lack of dating experience so far. I sent Dale a Christmas card that year, launching a letter-writing courtship that culminated in our marriage two and a half years later. Had I not changed my major to English, gone away to graduate school where I felt lonely, who knows whether I would have sent Dale that Christmas card. And if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have the two wonderful children I have, along with their spouses and my four grandchildren. I can’t even imagine what life would be like without all of them in it!

Writing and editorial career: One of the major factors guiding the decision to switch my major from nursing to English was affirmation from my freshman English composition professor of my writing ability. There had been a couple of previous affirmations of my writing (including an A+ for a short story I wrote in high school that embarrasses me now), but there had also been the teacher in elementary school who told me my writing “lacks sparkle.” As an English major in college, one of my major extracurricular activities was serving on the staff of the college newspaper, writing news articles and editing the paper during my senior year.

While I didn’t start out with any intentions of becoming a writer and editor, my career has been a classic case of “how way leads on to way.” One opportunity led to another, which led to others. At first I wrote articles for my denominational periodical (for free), but then I was asked to take on major editorial projects, some of which actually paid real money. Some were short-term, while some have lasted a long time, like my 33+ years of editing Shalom! for the Brethren in Christ Church. Success in small editorial and writing projects led to what became a more-than-twenty-year career as a publications/communications person in children’s mental health for the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Who knows what interesting twists and turns and opportunities would have come my way as a nurse, but I certainly haven’t been bored with the career I’ve had and there have always been new creative challenges.

Commitment to peace and justice: Had I not married Dale (which as I’ve already suggested might not have happened if I hadn’t gone far away to graduate school in English after college), it’s entirely possible that I would have ended up at a different place on peace and justice issues. We both came of age during the Vietnam War and grew up in a religious tradition that encouraged compassionate service and opposed war and violence, so we had the same significant formative influences. But, as Dale and I differed with each other on matters of theology, faith and belief, what we continued to have in common were our values and commitment to pursuing peace and justice in the world. We might have come to it from different philosophical frameworks, but we share the same commitment.

Robert Frost’s poem ends with this stanza:

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.

For a long time I thought the poem was mostly about the value of taking the road less traveled – making your own path rather than following the easy route that everyone else is taking or expects you to take. Yet the title of the poem is “The Road Not Taken,” which despite the final lines seems to suggest a certain nostalgia and wonderment about what would have happened if the traveler had chosen the other road. After all, he is “telling this with a sigh” – perhaps a sigh of sadness that he couldn’t go back to the beginning again. At the same time, however, the traveler seems satisfied with the path he chose: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Ultimately, we can drive ourselves crazy imagining what might have happened if we had made a different choice at certain points in our lives. For example, recently an older gentleman who was a good friend of my parents commented that long ago his father suggested that an aunt of mine would have been a good partner for him. So my mind immediately went down that “what if” path: his children would be my first cousins. But of course his actual children who I’ve known for many years wouldn’t be the people I know because they wouldn’t have had the same parents; they might not even exist at all! The “what if I had chosen the other road” is an interesting exercise – and can become rather mind-boggling – but ultimately perhaps it’s beside the point. We can either regret the choices we made or be grateful for the wonderful things we would have missed if we had made a different choice 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. While it’s entirely possible (and perhaps even likely) that a nursing profession would have worked out just fine for me, I don’t regret the choice I made to major in English instead. That has made all the difference!



2 thoughts on “The Road Not Taken

  1. I find your ruminations entirely understandable–and I believe they are a product of growing older. We have more years behind us, so we can look back and speculate and wonder.
    I recall our girlhood conversations about nursing–I think I wanted to become a doctor (The Jungle Doctor series influencing, no doubt AND our shared experience of seeing a missionary doctor quite frequently!). I too changed course–I ran into chemistry–and likewise chose English.
    I am struck by how some of my life choices were strongly influenced by serendipity. For example, I wrote a letter of gratitude to one of my favorite English profs from college, and he promptly offered the prospect of a year’s teaching position. That in turn became 8 years of teaching. After I retired from my last full time job, that 8 year stint of teaching became all the credentials I needed to do another 8 years of teaching in adjunct capacity at our local community college–a profoundly rewarding experience.
    A final word on “The Road Not Taken”–too many people, I believe,misunderstand which is the road not taken. And, I have read some interpretations which ponder long and loftily on taking the less traveled road. What I think Frost is really writing about is precisely what you explored–that there are choices in life, and though we don’t know it at the time, one choice leads to another and another. Any choice–any choice at all–would have exactly the same outcome. Way leads on to way…

    • Yes, Donna, I’m sure our childhood ambitions to enter the medical profession were influenced by the missionary doctors and nurses we knew well. But then I ran into K. B. Hoover’s freshman biology class….

      Serendipity is a good word to describe a lot of what happened to me, from that prodding to write to Dale in Zambia to my inquiry about what else I could do with an English major besides teach which led to my first free-lance job.

      About the poem: the phrase “the road less traveled” has taken on somewhat mythic proportions, I think, as the preferred road, when it may or may not be. I’m glad that at this stage in my life I have found something new in the poem – even if I should have seen it a long time ago!

      Thanks for your comments as always!

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