The best lessons in life occur outside the classroom. Here’s a recent example. During high school, we read Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken”. It was to encourage us to think for ourselves, break away from the crowd, take risks and create our own path.
The last stanza of the poem is one of the most over-quoted in travel and motivational books/posters/speeches etc: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I; I took the one less travelled by; And that has made all the difference.
I’ve recently discovered that the true message in this poem is actually intended to be a much more realistic, pragmatic and honest one. Even more surprising is that I learnt this from a much more unconventional educator 12 years post-high school – the highly addictive and comedic drama series, Orange is The New Black. While talking about this poem (Season 1 Episode 7 for those playing at home), the main character Piper Chapman says:
That doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means… Everyone thinks the poem means to break away from the crowd and do your own thing. But if you read it, Frost is very clear that the two roads are exactly the same. He just chooses one at random. And then it’s only later at a dinner party when he’s talking about it that he tells everyone he chose the road less travelled by, but he’s lying. So the point of the poem is that everyone wants to look back and think that their choices matter. But in reality, shit just happens the way that it happens, and it doesn’t matter.
Apparently, Frost was being ironic – it didn’t make any difference which road he took. The poem is making fun of human nature’s need to find meaning in arbitrary decisions. I went back and re-read it to confirm – Piper’s right. The first half of the poem talks about the two roads being the same – “equally lay” and “just as fair” – then he just chooses one over the other. But he admits that, “somewhere ages and ages hence”, he will claim “with a sigh” that “the one less travelled…made all the difference”.
Now, I like to believe that Frost chose the road that he did for a reason – why is that? If it didn’t make any difference, what’s the meaning of it all? What’s the point in taking any road? We all want our lives – our choices – to mean something. It’s an intrinsic part of human nature and a common thread in the human experience.
Frost makes a good point though – the consequences of our choices are often not truly realised until we have the benefit of hindsight. Especially, the hard choices. So if we apply the meaning later – ages and ages hence – then maybe it just is what it is. Shit does just happen. It’s the reactions and perceptions that we overlay and project onto the decision that make the difference – not the road itself.
And they said TV wasn’t educational…