Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, or You’re Probably Full of Shit but We All Were Born That Way

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I’m an awesome motherfucker who walks his own path.” — Nick August, bastardizing Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”.

That Frost poem referenced in the title of this essay gets trotted out every year at this time as we approach the generally meaningless significance of a “new year”, New Year’s Day, whatever.

The universe never heard of a calendar and shit like The Road Not Taken probably doesn’t mean what most people tell you it means.

The reason is simple: we’re all full of shit. Some more than others. Some more often than others.

Believing your own bullshit is like getting fat: it’s practically effortless. Eat more and move less. Not a problem. The same is true for mindfucking oneself. It’s practically effortless. You just think what you want and look at everything through your own prism designed to refract truth and reality in a way that’s enjoyable to think about.

But you don’t get smarter doing that. You get dumber. You get, well, full of even more shit.

A popular trope I hear implied or stated by many–hell, I’ve done it myself–is that reading is exercise for your mind. But it’s not. It’s better food, maybe. But it’s not exercise.

Reading and consuming content might fill your mind, and it might fill your mind with the equivalent of healthy food, but that’s where it stops.

“Okay, then, Mr. Asshole Smart Guy,” you may be saying at the moment, “what’s mental exercise, then?”

Congratulations. You just started a workout.

Asking questions and solving problems is exercise for the mind. It’s critical thinking.

Chances are you don’t do this very often unless you make a point to do it. Most people don’t because doing so rarely constitutes or meets an immediate biological or evolutionary need in the way, say, fight or flight does.

Our brains have been evolutionary tuned to think quickly for survival. But they’ve also been tuned to do something else to succeed.

Our brains are tuned to lie…to ourselves as much as others if not more. We are some mindfucking motherfuckers, Homo sapiens.

At the risk of proof-texting here, which is not my intention, I quickly refer to the part of the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari where he explores theories as to why Sapiens still exist but Neanderthals do not in light of the possibility that we hunted better than them and perhaps dominated them in fighting and perhaps even committed genocide to guarantee resources for ourselves. One advantage Harari posits for our ultimate triumph was our presumed superior ability to communicate, to think abstractly, to strategize at a far more advanced level, and to create stories that unified us, helped solidify a common identity.

Harari never extends that explanation in the book, so I’m going off on my own “road less traveled by” here, but there is not much of a difference between a fictionalized story, a myth created by a pre-scientific mind to explain reality, and a lie.

It’s not my purpose here to establish the validity of this line of thinking. Plenty of scholars in various disciplines have already gone there. I invoke it here only to suggest that there is a strong case to be made that we “need” or default to story telling because that is also a result of natural selection, if as nothing more than a by-product of a more highly developed ability to think in the abstract, etc.

Just as our brains are “programmed” to solve puzzles and equations, they seem similarly built to explain our experience. We’ve done that with stories (myth, religion, etc.) going back millennia. An offshoot of that is that we also tend to interpret reality in a way that appeals to us, or tell stories about events that never happened, or that did not happen in the way that we tell them.

In other words, we lie to others, and we lie to ourselves. We seem predisposed to do this. It is the easier road to travel when we’ve fucked things up. It is the mental equivalent of sitting on the couch watching television and eating snack chips, and drinking soda or beer for hours on end. Reality sucks? I’m an asshole? No problem. I’ll just use my evolved capability for abstraction and making up shit that doesn’t exist or didn’t happen to tell myself a better story.

I could use a lot of examples to illustrate this, but when I taught college literature classes for a few years during my misguided youth, nothing brought this theory home harder than when I taught Frost’s The Road Not Taken to freshmen, most of whom had already been taught the sappy bullshit interpretation in high school.

I won’t be quoting the whole poem here (and I have a reason for not laying the whole thing out here) but it’s easy enough to find online. If you read this, wait and read the poem afterward.

Most popular interpretations of that poem end up going something like this unholy, godawful pablum:

Taking the least traveled path may seem riskier and require more effort and work since people taking the more popular route have flattened the grass and cleared the way whereas the less traveled path is likely rougher, less well-marked, loaded with obstacles, etc. This is also often likened as well to enduring criticism from the popular kids (society) for not ‘going along with the crowd’ (abiding by society’s rules). The conclusion most often presented or suggested by people adopting this line of thinking is that it is better to travel the less popular “path” because ultimately it makes the difference in living and extraordinary life instead of an ordinary one.

As Penn and Teller would say, that interpretation is Bullshit!

A few quick points that will help explain why that is:

  1. The poem is titled, “The Road Not Taken”, not “The Road Less Traveled.” The emphasis of the poem and its defining conceit is spotlighting the road the speaker did NOT take (which would be the more popular, more commonly traveled one) in opposition to the road he did take.
  2. Both roads are described as being pretty much the same. There was no physical advantage to one over the other.
  3. “It has made all the difference”…not only does that not suggest a firm positive or negative benefit from taking that road, but the way Frost puts that in the context of a man looking back on his life, it has become a part of the story he tells. But does he sound like a reliable narrator here, or the way we all sound when talking about the significance of specific decisions from the perspective of twenty or thirty years down the road?
  4. Let’s go back to “decisions”. What this poem is really about is the significance of making a choice. First world moderns–and we Americans in particular–tend to talk of choices between two kinds of soap or automobiles or refrigerators. But a real choice in the existential sense means selecting one of two mutually-exclusive options: becoming a priest as opposed to a football player; marrying this person instead of that one; etc. Remember, he points out that choosing one route automatically excludes the other, and that he “doubted” he would ever make it back to this fork.

In Frost’s letters to his friend that he took walks with (at least, if I remember correctly), much of this poem was motivated by their tendency to pick one route and then encounter some difficulty (obstacles, find that it is a much longer route than expected, etc.) and always remark that they should’ve taken the other route.

Punchline: they had no clue whether the other route was easier or more difficult, having never been down that one.

The poem’s emphasis on the road that wasn’t taken indicates it’s as much about regret or wondering “what if” as anything else: What if I married that other person? What if I became a football player instead of a preacher? What if I went into the military before–or instead of–college where I majored in dumb shit like the liberal arts? What if I had taken that other road?

The final line, “And that has made all the difference”, is ambiguous, and there is a good argument to be made that Frost left it ambiguous on purpose. What is the nature of that difference, really?

Since both of those roads were about the same, any difference looking back upon the actual choice is only in the mind of the reader, of the one who is looking back. If the reader looks back with satisfaction on the road he took and with where he’s at, it will be a positive difference. If he looks back with dissatisfaction from a place he’d rather not be, that is how he will conceptualize it.

The other possibility, and one closer to what I think Frost was getting at in light of his correspondence with his friend about the poem, is that of an older, wiser traveler looking back upon the choices he’s made and where they took him, and understanding that’s why he is where he is at.

That is much more keeping with Frost’s body of work and personal commentary.

Frost was not a motivational speaker. He wasn’t a life coach. He wasn’t a guru, shaman, or preacher in the popular sense. Among other things his poetry focused on existential realities of life and relationships from the perspective of the individual experiencing those realities and relationships. The Road Not Taken is, I think, one of the best poems I’ve ever read but not because of its popular use as motivational drivel, but because, properly understood, it puts the reader in the position of his current self, or perhaps his older self, looking back on his life, understanding (or not!) how he got to where he is, and repeating the tendency we all have to look back and say, what if? Because this poem could easily have been titled, “What If?”, but that would’ve been too easy.

So what’s my point?

First, quit fucking up this excellent poem by projecting your own soy, wishy-washy motivational speaker bullshit on words that were not written as a paean to plucky individuality, risk-taking, and the cult of populist self-help.

Second, this poem isn’t a formula or song of independence (check out Walt Whitman for that bullshit). It’s, crudely put, as much about how we tend to bullshit ourselves by rewriting history as anything else. And if you bullshit yourself…you’re bullshitting other people (vett your guru). Or you can flip the script and understand it as a poem about the significance of choices as long as you don’t make the mistake and use it to confirm your own beliefs about being a radical individualist, or life advice about how to make a choice.

Third, read more poetry. Because why the fuck not?

Happy New Year, and Non-serviam.