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;
Chances are you skipped that entire stanza before even finishing the first line because you knew the rest of the words. These opening lines are probably some of the most recognizable words ever written by an American, behind only the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence and perhaps some of Taylor Swift’s catchier lyrics. These lines are common to nearly every high school graduation ceremony, introductory English class, and piece of advice your parents gave you when you were having that identity crisis in middle school. These are, of course, the opening lines of Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken.
We know the story well: a traveler reaches a fork in the road and has to decide which path to take. We find ourselves in the woods with the traveler, looking down the path, trying to glimpse a hint of what lay ahead, of which path holds more promise. Sometimes the choices we face are weighty and irrevocable; we want to make the right choice, since life may not grant a chance at a do-over. This is the quintessential dilemma of choice.
In writing this poem, Robert Frost demonstrated incredible cultural prescience, accurately foreshadowing the emergence of FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, long before it struck anxiety into the indecisive hearts of over-worked college students and twenty-something millennials trying to figure out where they fit in. If only we could weigh our options, we think, and have some kind of assurance, concrete and tangible, that the path we choose is actually the better of the two. Then we wouldn’t have to live the rest of our lives ruminating on what might or could have been, if only we had chosen differently at the fork in the road.
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,
While reading this poem, it occurs to me that there is no better exemplar of FOMO than choosing to adhere to the Christian faith. On the winding road of life, we reach a point where the trail parts and we stop to consider our options: Christ on one side, everything else on the other. Each path comes with considerable opportunity cost. I often find myself returning to this spot, looking both ways, taking inventory of what I stand to gain or lose down either path.
When this poem is read at graduation ceremonies and in classrooms and by sagacious parents, it is always accompanied by a lesson that goes something like: Don’t be afraid to choose a path different than the one everyone else is choosing; even if it’s more challenging, take the road less traveled; it’ll be worth it in the end. We are told to take the road less traveled because we stand to reap greater rewards for having done so. But that is not the narrative that Frost presents us with in the poem.
Quite the opposite, Frost describes both paths as equally appealing and uncertain. And so it is at the crossroads of life and faith. We actually don’t have any way of knowing for certain if the life Jesus calls us to live is better than the alternative. Neither path is discernibly more or less travelled, nor harder or more rewarding by virtue of being more or less travelled. There are those who might claim that one or the other path is the obvious choice, a no-brainer. But to deny the substantial appeal of the alternative is shortsighted; if one option really were so preferable to the other, then it would be an easy decision for all to make. Anyone who claims that the decision to follow Christ is easy belies the consequence of the decision and betrays the self-honesty required of the traveler trying to decide which path to take.
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.
Eventually our traveler makes a decision and sets down a path, almost haphazardly. The traveler realizes that reason and reflection are of no use in arbitrating the decision, abandons them altogether and just starts walking. And this is the breakthrough of the poem.
Similarly frustrated by the stagnation of indecision, Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher, finds a solution in what he calls a leap of faith. Kierkegaard understands that reason and rationalization will only get one so far, especially in the context of deciding to follow Christ. We can stand at the fork in the road and look down each path all day long and get no closer to the truth we are seeking. In fact, Kierkegaard argues that the breakdown of reason and logic is such that one can actually lapse into inaction—a sort of paralysis by analysis—if one spends too much time trying to discern some sort of certainty from the inherently uncertain. And that is the point. It is precisely at the end of certainty that faith can begin, and it is by making the leap of faith that we keep from losing ourselves in the infinity of choice. Because reason cannot help choose which path to take, making the leap of faith is not only the better option, it is the only rational option we can make.
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.
And yet, we are left with those two pesky lines at the end of the poem that have skewed interpretation of the poem for so long. Didn’t we read just a few lines ago that both paths had equal appeal when viewed from the fork? What exactly is the missing factor that accounts for the realization that one path has more to offer than the other? Maybe we can chalk it up a combination of hindsight and confirmation bias.
Or maybe, it’s just the fact that we began walking at all. Maybe it’s the realization that making a leap of faith has allowed us to move forward rather than be stuck at the crossroads of indecision. And that has made all the difference.