No, the Road Less Traveled by Didn't Make All the Difference
May we face life's suffering with discipline and wise perspective.
Posted May 11, 2019
Adolescent angst is a precursor to a lifelong battle for identity. When a baby brings sleepless nights, dreams may be compromised. Seeds of midlife crises are sown early into a soil of doubt and panic. Unexpected obstacles and diversions in our careers may leave us despairing. Meanwhile, injustices persist, and inequities abound. Death often comes without warning and buries with it the unreconciled or unfinished, leaving a wake of grief, paralyzed. Life is difficult.
4 Disciplines for Life
“Life is difficult.”
This is the opening line of Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. Peck described four disciplines necessary for solving life’s problems...
1. Delaying gratification.
Zig Ziglar once said, “The chief cause of unhappiness is trading what you want most for what you want now.” As we curate our professional identity and play capture the flag, we risk losing touch with an instinct for spontaneity, creativity, and love—fruits of cultivation, not curation, integrity, not drivenness. Without them, we avoid relationships and ourselves and contrive false solutions to life’s problems.
2. Taking up courage.
Most of us live in oscillation between varying degrees of domestic isolation and identity confusion. Becoming vocationally mature requires becoming spiritually mature, and it requires great care to plant, light, water, and wait. We have great power, activated by courage—acting in spite of our fear, rather than waiting for the perfect moment that will never come. Yet we go to great lengths to heed fear and justify inaction.
3. Being dedicated to truth.
As cultural beings, we live by bias and perception. We must strip away assumptions and anxieties that remain attached to an internalized schema of the world we risk empowering to be the prime mover of our identity—who we are, what we’re good for, and what we expect of life—our mentalities hijacked by herd and mob, and neither herd nor mob requiring or offering integrity or justice. We must become honest, and this is not a painless process. Socrates wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Pity and pride are sins of equal proportion. There must be an acknowledgment of defenses and masks, a removal of armor that protects us from imagined threats that we have transferred from an outdated map.
Impulses woven into the fabric of character and memory are not easily eliminated. Like unregulated blood sugar or cholesterol, diet alone will merely control such a condition. Successful treatment requires changes to the environment and the nourishment that ushered it into being. For fruit trees to grow large and healthy fruit, they must be pruned. We must let go of parts of ourselves—habits, hobbies, and attitudes—not aligned with integrity, justice, or beauty. Despair grows as we feed it, and so does hope and expectancy. We must engage in self-pruning to become fully mature.
Scott Peck described this sort of disciplined life as one engaged in “legitimate suffering,” instructing that we should not engage in discipline to minimize discomfort or to master our destiny, but to live wisely, rather than to live foolishly. Life cannot be hacked; it must be faced. The American poet Robert Frost put it this way: “Life is tons of discipline.”
Here are the first three lines of Frost's most popularly known poem—
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood…
The meaning in Robert Frost’s (1916) poem “The Road Not Taken” has been widely misunderstood as a rally cry for taking the better paths in life. Yet in the actual poem, the traveler expressed sorrow he could not travel both roads and confessed he could not see very far down either one.
Frost's roads are indeed metaphor for paths in life, and his tale has the power to normalize our anxieties about them. The traveler contemplated one path which caught his eye for its novelty, how it “bent in the undergrowth." His looking long down it left him paralyzed for a time, uncertain of which direction to start. Ultimately, he took the other road, somewhat impulsively—the one he had not even taken time to study, as he had the first.
Although the traveler initially justified his choice on the basis that the second road “was grassy and wanted wear”—less traveled and perhaps more novel than the first—further assessment proved “the passing there had worn them really about the same.”
As he gained experience on the road, his perspective of the roads eventually shifted. He decided that not only do both of the paths “equally lay,” but do so “in leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, he comes to determine that neither of the two roads that had been available on that morning walk had been well-traveled. I'm reminded of something the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote: "The eye with which you look at reality, must constantly be changed."
The traveler briefly contemplates taking a trip down the first road on another day, but then acknowledged to himself, “Knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” He recognized that his decision to take the second road would result in a rippling of consequence into the future, and that it would be highly unlikely he would have opportunity to take the first road later.
In the final stanza, he leaps forward many decades notionally and speculates insightfully that one day he will tell his story in such a way that insinuates that his decision to take the road he took was what made the difference. But he was being ironic.
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.
As the years wear along, we consolidate and integrate memory and meaning. We make difficult decisions, live into them as best we can, then sigh and tell tales, not accounts. Whether in resignation or gratefulness, conceit or humility, we renegotiate the narratives of our lives and tell stories in the current of effect rather than the exactitude of fact, recasting suffering into cynicism or fortune into fate. We engage in meaning-making not just to cope, but as part of a long process of a deeper acceptance—letting go of that which we cannot control. Life is indeed difficult. Let us face it with discipline and perseverance, but also mindful acceptance and a growing aptitude to embrace the ironies as they come. May the road rise to meet you.
Frost, R. (1916). The road not taken. Mountain interval. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Kierkegaard, S. (1999). The aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard. NYRB Classics: New York, NY.