Made All the Difference, My Ass
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We all know the Robert Frost poem, so much so that I didn’t even feel particularly compelled to cite the author or the title above. You don’t have to be an English major to know that shit. Funny thing is, though, people misread this poem all the time. Though the poem is largely heralded as a monumental statement of individualism and forging one’s own path, most people are blithely ignorant of the poem’s darker undertones that suggest a somewhat different message regarding the nature of the choices we make.
You see, the first thing most readers, or in this case, half-ass readers, miss in this poem is that the narrator clearly tells us that there really is no noticeable difference between the two roads. In fact, the narrator emphasizes it no less than three times. “Then took the other, as just as fair”, “Had worn them really about the same”, “And both that morning equally lay” all tell us that really there is no discernible distinction between these two paths. Think about this for a moment. This guy isn’t making some heroic decision based upon his willingness to be different from the masses. He’s just trusting in blind luck, shooting fish in a barrel, pulling this crap out of his ass. What most folks don’t take into account when reading the poem is that Frost was a noted cynical bastard. Don’t forget this was the old softy who also penned that “good fences make good neighbors”. He wasn’t some pie-eyed Romantic like Wordsworth or Whitman; he was a curmudgeonly Realist defined by living through two World Wars. And life, Frost is telling us, is like one of those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories with the pages ripped out so that you can’t cheat by looking ahead. We are blind men stumbling around in the dark, making choices out of nothing but undecipherable circumstance.
And as if that were not quite enough, Frost also tells us that these decisions make “all the difference”. When he tells us that he is “sorry I could not travel both”, it is a poignant acknowledgement that once we make those decisions, once we have started down certain paths, there is no going back, no chance to amend our potential mistakes. Though we might want to hold onto the chance of going down that other road on “another day”, “knowing how way leads on to way/ I doubted if I should ever come back.” Good luck, mates!
Ah, but come on, at least that road is the right one. After all, in the end, that has “made all the difference”. Wait a damn minute! What “difference”? Frost never tells us whether this is a good difference or a bad one. Perhaps he is pointing back from prison or divorce or, even worse, marrying Kanye West. What then? The ironic ambivalence is highlighted by the “sigh” he is telling the story with “ages and ages hence”. This could be a sigh of contentment or a sigh of exasperation, or a sigh of a life resigned to sadness and misery. Shit, we have no plausible idea what kind of sigh this is.
And yet, isn’t that truly the essence of the human condition? Hasn’t Frost nailed it perfectly? As we confront the difficult decisions of our lives, we have no way of knowing the full ramifications of the paths we choose. Even more, once we start heading down a particular path, we have no way of knowing where the other road may have brought us. I’ll bet you want to kick Robert Frost’s ass now don’t you?
But buck up, little camper- life isn’t quite so bleak. That too is the beauty of it all. In the end, the destination doesn’t much matter anyways. We all end up in the same place regardless. What does matter is the journey along the way, so pick a road and don’t worry so much about it. Realize that choices are just that: choices. Which leads me to one other slightly more optimistic piece of advice I got from an Indigo Girls song many years ago, “The best thing you’ve ever done for me/ Is to help me take my life less seriously; it’s only life after all.” Unless you marry Kanye West- that really would be miserable.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every TUESDAY and FRIDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com