“The Road Not Taken”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Have you ever traveled to a distant city or town and while finding your way to your destination, you stumble upon an area that looksso interesting that you just want to stop and check it out? Perhaps you are pressed for time and you remind yourself that you are expected and if you stop you might arrive late. You try to make a mental note to go back later, perhaps as you return home, but you knoweven as you do that it’s likely you will forget. Or simply decide that you don’t have the time to stop then either…
Life presents most of us with so many choices, at times it is hard to know what to choose. Which way to go? How to pick the best way to get to where we’re trying to go? That is, if we are lucky enough to have choices!
It’s good sometimes for us to remind ourselves, as typical Unitarian Universalists who have a long personal history of marching to the beat of a different drummer, that not everyone has had the same opportunities that we have been blessed to recognize. You may think it is an outdated notion that people pick life’s course based on the expectations of their families, their community, their particular lot in life. Sure, they have choices, but sometimes the pressure to conform to what’s expected of them and the very real consequences of abandonment if they dared to stray from that path, made it seem as if really had no choice at all.
It’s great to have choices in life that help us feel the excitement of rewarding possibilities—and it’s awful when we feel that we have been subjected to a single destiny, especially when it’s a destiny that serves to limit who, and what we know we are capable of being.
When Robert Frost wrote The Road Not Taken to tease his writer friend and frequent walking companion for always wondering what they might be missing by not taking a particular path, he probably did not know that the poem would be championed by generations of those considered to be marching to a different drummer. The poem has come to herald the virtues of independent thinking and the practice of personal freedom.
Frost’s walking companion was always wondering what they were missing when choosing one path over another. Frost recognized the human tendency to not necessarily follow through on our impulsive curiosity with the line in the poem: “I doubted if I should ever come back.”
He even recognizes that although one path appears “less trod upon”, with fresher grass that “seems to be wanting wear” – it is more of a momentary perception than an actual difference, because both paths that morning in Frost’s poem “equally lay in leaves no step had trodden.”
What we remember most from Frost’s beloved poem is the ending that “the road less traveled by made all the difference.” It is a comforting and self-congratulatory statement that tells us in the end it pays to listen to our heart and sometimes choose what is not expected of us. Frost’s poem encourages those of us who dare to trust ourselves in life especially when what we choose goes against the grain of convention or the expectations of others.
Can you think of a time when you bravely chose a path that felt contrary to the expectations of others in your life—or challenged the norms of our society?
Perhaps it was a choice of who to be friends with in school, or maybe it was listening to a particular kind of music, or wearing a certain kind of clothes.
Or perhaps when everyone thought you should have a family—you chose to work or go to school instead. Perhaps you surprised people in your life by your choice of work or your choice in a partner or where you decided to live. There are so many ways in which we can feel we are going our own way and risking the stability we can get when others approve of our actions.
Another piece in Frost’s poem that recognizes a basic human condition is that although we can try other paths in life and occasionally ever alter our course—we can’t fundamentally change the past. We are left with the consequences of our choices always.
As I grow older I find myself reflecting on the ways I feel I have changed over the years and the ways in which I feel the same as I did when I was much younger. It’s funny how life and our choices and sometimes lack of choices can change us. And I think also of my own willingness to be changed. Sometimes I have welcomed the fresh perspective that a person or idea can introduce to my life—while many times I have expected or perhaps unconsciously wished that others would change to conform to my expectations for them. I recently asked myself—if I can so easily expect others to change in order to meet my personal standards, am I willing to consider the changes others may desire of me? Am I willing to change and be changed—even when it’s not the way I see it or feel it should be done? Hmmm…
Sometimes I think about my own choices in life and the times that circumstances have seemed to have chosen me. I wonder how my life would be different if I’d gone that way instead of this one. I celebrate some beautiful surprises in my life—like the birth of my daughter, meeting my husband and even becoming a minister, while at times I wonder where I’d be now if I’d followed another path. Would I be in another career? Another town? Leading a totally different life?
Julia Cameron wrote some year ago a book that has known quite a bit of popularity called The Artist’s Way. In it, Cameron asserts that we are as humans by definition—creative beings and that creativity is a birthright that many of us have to struggle to reclaim and recover. Our individual creativity was often stifled when we were children for various reasons—to make us practical and socially acceptable, to keep us from precarious positions. I’m sure you can think of more reasons why.
Cameron’s book is filled with little activities to help us claim the creative impulse in our lives and to give ourselves permission and support for growing into the fullness of our being. One of the exercises has to do with envisioning the imaginary lives we could lead, if we could suddenly be transported to another place and time. If you could wave a magic wand—where would you love to live and what would you be doing there?
On my short list, I am a painter in France or a rancher in Wyoming.
It’s interesting to look for the unclaimed parts of ourselves in the lives we are living. For instance, instead of being a painter in France, I have an extensive postcard collection of art I have brought home with me from travels to other lands and museums and gift shops. Instead of being a rancher, I seek out wide open spaces for walks in the countryside or simply a place to sit and look out.
I enjoy remembering how multifaceted each of us is in our lives. How multidimensional our lives are. And that there is so much possibility available to us, if we dare to look for it.
It reminds me of a poem by the writer Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from German.
“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world,
I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still do not know!
Am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?”
We all have dreams that we carry with us in life of aspirations – the things we would like to do before we die.
It’s unlikely when you are on your deathbed that you will say you wish you’d had more time…to work!
No, we have too many dreams in us not to think of the paths we haven’t been able to take and wonder where they might have led us. Sometimes we fail to notice that the projects that we devotedly commit ourselves to in the present carry the power of a dream or destination we hope to eventually realize for ourselves.
I recently saw a movie with a great story about this based in true life. The movie is called The World’s Fastest Indian and stars Anthony Hopkins as the man from New Zealand who holds the world record for speed on a motorcycle with a class of 1000cc.
This great story is about Burt Munro a guy who was born in 1899, who served in WWI, raised a family, and was a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast. For over 40 years Munro kept rebuilding his 1920 Indian motorcycle himself, trying to make it the fastest Indian in the world. His dream was to take his Indian motorcycle to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to see what fastest speed his bike could achieve.
In the movie he has figured out how to go from New Zealand to Long Beach, California on a sea freighter working off his passage. It isn’t until he is encouraged by friends that he mortgages his home, which is really a workshop shed, to have enough money to buy a car to take him from California to Utah.
Munro went to Utah in 1962 on a shoestring budget and with the kindness of strangers and a steady perseverance. He negotiated himself into the competition despite the fact that he hadn’t registered in advance, and his motorcycle lacked all the requisite safety requirements for high speed, like a parachute and flame retardant material. He didn’t even have brakes!
In a trial run, Munro amazingly broke speed records and so they let him into the competition. His lifelong dream was realized because of years of devotion to his craft of rebuilding the bike to make if faster and faster, and his sheer determination to find out exactly how fast it could go.
So here’s a man who had an avid hobby for years and in his sixties traveled halfway around the world to see if his particular dream could come true. Some of his personal determination is attributed to the fact that Munro lost a twin sibling in childhood and often reflected on the life he might have shared with them.
Munro set a world record in 1967 and it has yet to be broken. Anthony Hopkins did a delightful job of portraying this man and his exuberant spirit. The byline for the movie is “It’s never too late for the ride of your life.”
Well we know that not all of us can lead such adventurous lives as this….
But we can allow our lives to take the shape of our long held dreams and find both personal inspiration and satisfaction choosing a path less traveled for ourselves that makes all the difference.
Another poem by Rilke comes to mind as I close—
“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
May it be so for each of us.