Most of us are probably familiar with Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” I remember that I wrote my AP English exam on it back in high school, which means it must have left quite the impression since that was 800 years ago.
The metaphor of two diverging paths and the choice one must make about which path to take resonates with most of us.
For example, when I applied to grad school, I was accepted to four universities. I wished I could split myself into four people attending all four for a semester before making my final decision. But Lord Voldemort’s crazy horcrux plan has proven that splitting oneself up isn’t a good idea, and it wasn’t really an option anyway, so I made my choice and occasionally wondered if it was the right one.
Beyond our ability to connect with the speaker’s moment of choice, most of us know this poem because it is ubiquitous. A 2015 Paris Review article traces its many incarnations as merchandise, commercials, song lyrics, references in news stories, and titles of books, most notably M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, which has sold more than 7 million copies worldwide.
The same article argues that the poem has been widely misread. Read carefully, the poem points out that though the speaker claims to have taken the road less traveled, his description belies this idea, for:
“the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.”
Essentially, the paths are equally traveled, and either will do. Sort of undercuts the seeming theme that I probably made the central focus of my AP essay.
Frost left evidence that he wrote the poem not as a profound piece meant to inspire connection (and coffee mugs) but as a private joke about his good friend’s inability to make the simplest choices. The poet Edward Thomas and Frost would go on walks together, with Thomas always struggling to decide which path to take and then later lamenting his choice to the point of annoying Frost.
I’d like to take the metaphor yet another direction, whether the poem is ironic or profound.
We are taking “roads” each day not generally recognizing any choice at all. Those roads are the neural connections in our brains that very much affect our choices.
For, in our brains, there are paths that are well-worn and often trodden, and, without our awareness, those are the pathways that light up quickly and automatically due to the strength of the connection.
Do and think the same way consistently, and you develop a strong neural connection that will be the pathway most quick to light up even when faced with a new experience.
A psychologist once described it to me as being similar to piling up a big mound of sand at the beach and then methodically pouring water in a stream on that mound of sand. Once the sand has been changed by that initial contact with water, subsequent water that is poured on the sand will tend to flow down that same dip in the sand making it deeper, creating a rivulet.
The point being that we may want to be a bit like Frost’s friend and pay attention to which road we take rather than reacting habitually and mindlessly.
As Rick Hanson notes in Buddha’s Brain, “What flows through your attention sculpts your brain.”
Paying attention — mindfulness — is the key. Our brains are plastic, that is they can be reshaped, neural connections weakened or strengthened. Hanson writes, “attention shapes neural circuits — and draws upon past learning to develop a steadier and more concentrated awareness. Wisdom is a matter of making choices.”
We don’t want to fret over every choice. Enjoy the walk in the woods. But if we are mindful, we can become aware of patterns and habits of thought that don’t serve us and alter those paths while creating stronger neural pathways that shift us from habits of anxiety or anger to habits of love or compassion.
We can become aware that there is another road and take it, for doing so makes “all the difference.”