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Figuring Out How to Choose

Since I left my job at Plymouth State University, I’ve gone through the challenging experiences of both hiking the Long Trail and now adjusting to Chilean life, culture, and language. In June, when I said good-bye to my colleagues from the Interdisciplinary Studies Program and walked out of Lamson Library for the last time, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t really know where I was going. When my dad dropped me off at a random trail in northern Massachusetts and said good-bye, I turned my head away from him and cried. I cried tears of joy, tears of fear, tears of the unknown, tears that I didn’t understand, but really just tears that told me I was doing the right thing.

If these experiences have given me one gift, it’s both clarity and confusion wrapped into a single package. In the nearly five months that I’ve been traveling, I’ve learned to trust myself more, yet as I’ve become more used to my own skin, I’ve also grown more aware of how little of me actually exists. As all the comforts I’ve come to rely on have slowly been taken away from me, I’ve had to rebuild myself from the ground up, forcing me to ask myself where I’d like to go, but unlike before, I’m not sure I know the answer anymore. I feel exposed and confused. It’s like living between two worlds; a world that continues to move forward, whether I want it to or not, and another world that’s trapped in time, containing all the repeatable memories that no one will ever forget because they bring life to our experiences as sentient beings. It’s lonely here, but it’s an illuminating loneliness. The kind of loneliness that’s difficult to relinquish. I feel free. The eagerness and dread I feel about returning home to the United States—and inclusion—are bound together in an inextricable knot. I wonder what I’ve found here, but almost as if it’s detached from everything else, I wonder if it matters. Over and over again, a single question—what am I looking for?—appears in my journal, but there’s never anything written after it. I struggle to find meaning.

My search for meaning has morphed into a reckoning with choice. If I don’t know what meaning is, why or how can I choose one thing over something else? I’m drawn to this question because the only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that it doesn’t actually matter. I don’t mean it doesn’t matter in a nihilistic or apathetic way, but more like it doesn’t matter from the perspective of liberation and detachment. I started thinking about it like this when I found a video published on The Atlantic about how everyone misreads Robert Frost’s poem, “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.

I’ve probably read this poem thirty times in the last month as I continue to think about what I want to do. Do I still want to go to graduate school when I return to the States? Should I travel alone or work in a hostel? Is it a good idea to exclusively eat bread for three out of the four meals I consume in a day? What’s more important, teaching my students the sentence structure of English or common phrases? Is it better to spend my weekends playing cards with Chileans, or traveling around the country with other Americans? I oftentimes doubt the decisions I’m making, but when I read Frost’s poem, I’m reminded that it really doesn’t matter which choice I make. Way leads on to way, and really, both choices are about the same.

I’ve also found a metaphor for this poem in the daily walks I like to take in the Chilean countryside surrounding my small town. Forestry is the leading industry in the region where I’m living, so logging roads wind up, over, and around the hills where I like to walk. In my first month here, I just started choosing paths at random to find out where they would go. I’ve been here for nearly four months, and I still haven’t walked down every road, but I know where a lot of them go now. I’ve discovered that a lot of them return to the same place they started. Some of them suddenly end. Some of them are more beautiful than others. Some of them are challenging to walk down because they’re muddy or almost entirely uphill. Some of them narrow into small paths that barely exist at all. Some of them cross over rivers, wind through bamboo forests, and end in fields scattered with cows. One road goes to a place that looks just like True Farm, a place where I used to live in New Hampshire.

Despite the many paths I’ve explored—and the many more I’ll never get to see—nothing about the roads I walk down will ever change the fact that I’m just walking. My environment changes, but my constant journey forward doesn’t falter. I think it’s impossible not to draw a correlation between my daily walks around Capitán Pastene and “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. The point to both of them is that time moves forward and people end up somewhere based on the decisions that they made in the past. In the case of Frost’s poem, he takes it one step further by pointing out that afterwards—during the sunsets of our lives—it’s easy to draw the conclusion that we ended up somewhere specific based on the decisions we made when we were younger; that a single choice could have “made all the difference.” However, Frost is saying it’s not really true that a single decision could have “made all the difference.”

This is where I’ve found solace in “The Road Not Taken.” I’m afraid to think any decision I make right now could have a lasting or permanent effect on my life. I dwell on the repercussions of every decision I make, which in turn handicaps me. I refuse to fully commit to my life in the fear that I’m sacrificing some other life in the process. However, Frost comforts me in the last stanza of his poem. At first glance, most people who read the poem would probably think that the speaker of the poem believes a single decision he made when he was younger “made all the difference” in the direction of his life—he made the “right” choice—but when the entire poem is pieced together, it’s clear Frost is saying both paths “equally lay” and are worn “really about the same,” signifying that either choice would have “made all the difference.” Frost is making the point that people place undue significance on choice, and that the common belief that choice can make foundational changes in our states of being is an illusion.

Why, might you ask, does this give me solace?

Before answering that question, I want to turn to a journal entry from about a year ago that I recently stumbled across while rereading my journal. In the passage below, I’m describing what I noticed during a 20-minute meditation I’d just taken.

“The meditation felt cavernous. It’s a labyrinthine sensation—there’s just no other way to describe it. Consciousness is dark and twisted, extending infinitely inwards. It’s such an unclear, description-less experience, I don’t know how to write about it. And it feels like I’m only scratching the surface of this experience/place. I feel drawn to the darkness, yet I don’t know why because I don’t even know what it contains, if anything. It felt like there were ledges and pathways—all infinite and abstract. If I took a pathway, it wouldn’t end and it would be identical to every other pathway. I don’t exactly know how to take a pathway, either. It requires a lot of concentration and energy to get farther than the surface. I can look into the abyss, but it’s difficult to take even a single step into it.”

Just like Frost’s poem, I keep returning to this passage. At first, I didn’t understand why I was drawn to it, but then I finally made the correlation between Frost’s poem and my journal entry and I understand them both in a different way. In Frost’s poem, he’s saying every road is equal; every path is a direction that will make “all the difference.” In the passage, I make the same point, but in relation to consciousness instead: “if I took a pathway, it wouldn’t end and it would be identical to every other pathway.” Once I started thinking about “The Road Not Taken” in relation to my journal entry, I realized I was reading Frost’s poem as an ode to personal discovery and transcendence. I realized it doesn’t make a difference if I stay in Chile for the rest of my life or return to the United States. It doesn’t matter if I eat bread and meat for every meal or return to a vegetarian diet. It doesn’t matter if I go to a party or stay in bed. The decisions we make shape our superficial experience, but fundamentally, they’re not going to alter the deeper relationship we have with ourselves, because just like walking, selfhood is a constant. Selfhood always moves forward in the same way despite the scenery surrounding it. The positive or negative qualities we prescribe to our experiences are superficial modifiers that are based on arbitrary factors, and they cannot penetrate the Self in a deeply structural way.

When we’re experiencing our lives, I believe there’s friction between the objective, non-meaningful events unfolding around us and the experience our minds superimpose onto those events, creating perception. When our minds contact reality, by default, meaning is created in the form of a dichotomy—good or bad, happy or sad, confusing or straightforward—but I don’t think we have to be powerless bystanders to this meaning creation process. I think we always have a choice to either let our minds create arbitrary significance out of our experiences or to see the world more objectively. I re-watched David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive the other day and for the first time the scene with cowboy finally made sense to me. In the scene, the cowboy says: “a man’s attitude—a man’s attitude goes some ways to the way his life will be. Is that something you might agree with?”

I studied yoga in India about eight years ago, and during that training, one of my teachers told me a story that I’ve never forgotten: a group of people are sitting around a table when someone walks into the room and throws a snake into the middle of the table. Some people stand up and scream. One person tries to grab the snake and kill it. Someone else grabs it and hurries to the door, intending to save it from the others. Some people do nothing. Would you say these reactions are based on the snake itself, or are they primarily based on how these people have learned to interpret the snake? The snake, objectively speaking, is neither harmful nor harmless—it’s just a snake—but the reactions the people have to the snake demonstrate how invasive our minds can be in what we believe to be true.

In the case of Mulholland Drive, we see a protagonist who lives two different lives: one happy and one sad. I would argue that the main difference between these two storylines is the character herself. Between the first and second storyline, the attitude of the protagonist goes from happy-go-lucky Betty to down-on-her-luck Diane, which I believe heavily influences how we—the viewers—perceive the success of both characters. I can easily imagine the storylines flip-flopping—the first storyline could just as easily be sad and the second storyline could just as easily be happy—solely based on the protagonist’s attitude. We even see multiple other characters—the waitress in Winkie’s, the prostitute hanging out with the hitman, and even Rita when she’s wearing the blonde wig—who appear to physically represent the protagonist, suggesting that there are different storylines available to the protagonist based on her attitude and decisions.

So, the point is, our attitude and perceptions play a huge role in the outcome of our lives. To return to my earlier question—why does “The Road Not Taken” bring me solace?—I believe it’s the reminder that every choice I make is the correct choice, in that there really are no wrong or right choices, only experiences. The qualifiers I apply to my experience based on the cultural beliefs I’ve internalized as my own are arbitrary. It’s all equivalent.

When thinking about the future, I always like to return to the past. The past seems like a much more accessible way to think about what’s ahead. So I think it’s worthwhile to conclude by saying that I’m holding on to my memories from Chile like they’re gold—pure gold—but when I reflect a little deeper, I realize just how broad and fractured they actually are: a knowing smile; a glance in the right direction; dancing alone to “Twist and Shout” at 3am because Chileans don’t like the Beatles; every time someone holds my shoulder as they kiss me on the cheek to say good-bye; the Spanish version of “Take a Chance on Me” playing on the radio, super, super loud; the breeze in my room when the window is open and I’m asleep; lilacs blooming in October; a student who remembered how to say “what’s up?” thirty seconds too late; freezing cold water pulling me out to sea; the first time one of my students said thank you and meant it; regret for not being more bold; soft rain that never seems to bother me; crying in another language; confusion; wondering; it’s all smashed together in an amalgam of memory that isn’t quite unique to me. I have no claim over them. They represent my experience in the same way any other memory would represent my experience if, earlier on, I’d walked down some other road. They’re neither right nor wrong; they’re simply just stories I tell myself to be true.

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