One of the more famous (but misunderstood) poems ever written was by Robert Frost titled, "The Road Not Taken":
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
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 Jackie Lay writes in The Atlantic, which first published the poem in 1915, we often interpret it as an "anthem of individualism and nonconformity." In other words, an encouragement to take the road less traveled.
But, according to Robert Frost himself, this was not the intent. He once said, "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem—very tricky." In truth, the two roads are "really about the same." In other words, they are equally traveled and quite interchangeable.
The critic David Orr even called it "the most misread poem in America." Writing in The Paris Review, Orr notes: "This is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices… The poem isn't a salute to can-do individualism. It's a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives."
So when we read the final stanza, "we can't know whether the speaker is sighing with contentedness or regret as he justifies the choices he's made and shapes the narrative of his life." Frost actually wrote the poem to tease an indecisive friend, Edward Thomas, "who misinterpreted the meaning and enlisted in the military shortly thereafter, only to be killed two years later in WWI."
But the poem can also be misread spiritually in light of the mystery and wonder of God's will working in tandem with our own. Consider marriage: It is a spiritual myth that there is one and only one "Mr./Ms. Right" out there who we are to marry. The deeper truth is that we are called to be equally yoked spiritually – meaning to marry a fellow Christ-follower – but beyond that, the choice is ours to make. There could be any number of people we could fall in love with and spend the rest of our lives with in marriage, all equally in receipt of God's blessing.
Yes, the one we choose – as with the road in Frost's poem – makes all the difference. But that does not mean our choice was better or worse than another. Just different.
And this is the great spiritual dynamic of the choices God allows us to make and how each choice leads us down ever-divergent paths from where we began. Since providence is a doctrine best seen in retrospect, it will undoubtedly only be when our lives are complete and fully with God that we will see how each divergent road could have led.
In the meantime, yes, our choices make all the difference. But with each one, right or wrong, God meets us anew, and begins the next leg of the journey with us.
James Emery White
Jackie Lay, "America's Most Widely Misread Literary Work," The Atlantic, March 19, 2018, read online.
David Orr, "The Most Misread Poem in America," The Paris Review, September 11, 2015, read online.