The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken

Perhaps the most misinterpreted and misused poem in the history of the English language is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” By cherry-picking the last three lines—


—readers have assumed that the poem is an expression of self-assertion, a kind of can-do individualism where making decisive choices and sticking to them will allow us to live with “no regrets.”

That resolve makes for good bumper stickers, but poor poetry, and even worse accounts of vocation.

These lines are printed on countless coffee cups and used in a host of television commercials, including those for Ford, Mentos, and Nicorette gum. Taken with the rest of the poem, they actually indicate what David Orr has described as “the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our lives.”

For example, right after the seemingly triumphant declaration of the resolve to someday return to the road not taken is a realism about whether that will ever happen, “knowing how one way leads on to way” (line 14), and so forth. The closing lines are little more than a painfully ironic hope for a utopic time “ages and ages hence” (line 17) when the narrator will be able to look back on crossroads and chance encounters and nevertheless discern Destiny.

Frost seems to be saying that we strip something of the complexity and ambiguity of our lives when we so desperately and robustly stand by our choices, will ourselves to have absolutely no regrets, and manage to live completely linear, self-assured lives.

Click here for Meg Jay’s popular TED talk

To educate for vocation—for lives of meaning and purpose—often assumes that we are helping students move from being conflicted and torn and indecisive to charting a clear and single path by way of decisive decision-making. Students are called by a host of parental and career services voices (some rather insistent) to choose a major, embark on a career, decide who you’re going to be. This is all fine and good. Indeed, it may be increasingly needed by twentysomething “emerging adults” who face an unprecedented and staggering amount of uncertainty. Consider, for example, Meg Jay’s strident appeal to Millennials to “claim your adulthood. Be intentional. Get to work. Pick your family…Make your own certainty” in The Defining Decade (201).

But I want to suggest that moving in the other direction—of opening up the decisive self to the vast array of pulls and possibilities and summons that bear on her—also leads to vocational growth, even if the accompanying growing pains can be acute.

Why emphasize the messiness and plurality of a person’s callings and how they often pull that person in different directions? In my experience, students often sniff out vocational stories that are overly cleaned up anyway. They themselves feel conflict in their many callings and are desperate to hear similar conflicts named and claimed by mentors who have worked through them.

The road of vocation is often winding.

In 2014, the institutional research office at my institution conducted a study of the “windy” lives of alumni. It asked about the number of job changes, relocations, and other major transitions that the participants had experienced, as well as professional and personal factors that influenced them. The data quickly confirmed that “many if not most . . . alumni have . . . led adult lives that look more like winding paths than straight lines.”

But it is one thing to be able look back on a winding life and see how it all makes sense; it is another thing to be in the middle of difficult transitions and not know how—or whether—the pieces will fall together. Many alumni/ae wrote about such difficult times of loss and forced choices, nostalgia for dreams deferred and grief for plans interrupted. But no comment was as sore as this one:

Well I was so strapped with debt after leaving Augustana but completely untrained in anything but writing endless papers that I had to join the military to pay off my massive student loan debt. This allowed me to deploy twice to a war zone and nearly die on at least 8 different occasions. I also took two IED blasts and suffer the after effects to this day. So going to your [expletive] school nearly killed me.

Educators can learn a good deal from graduates who won’t be featured in alumni magazines. The agonizing words of this one are presumably an attempt to counter (what the writer takes to be) the answer the researchers were looking for.

How could we have served him better? It is hard to say, but perhaps we did not adequately speak of our own vocations from places of ambiguity and ambivalence, or even regret or remorse. Perhaps besides too many assigned papers he received too many success stories—retrospective accounts of how one got from there to here, either because one made all the right choices or because Fate or Chance or God was working all things through for the good.

Grief, disappointment, doubt, sorrow, and patient suffering are human capabilities or dispositions that are capable of being learned. They are not just emotional reactions, but carry cognitive power—no less than do hope, faith, grit, and celebrations of success. By teaching and modeling the entire range of these dispositions, college educators might prepare students to become more fully human, while also more pliant and porous.

Iphigenia and Isaac – both saved at the altar

Instruction in the proper response to tragedy may be the right place to start. I think of the stories of Agamemnon and of Antigone, both of whom are caught between fidelity to family and fidelity to the nation-state. Or—even more graphically—of Abraham who in Genesis 22 is called to sacrifice the son whom he is also called to love and protect. I think also of students who, like another graduate of my institution, give up scholarships to attend Yale Divinity School in order to return to central Illinois to help with the family business and care for dying parents.

Educators are called to tell their own stories in ways that include regret, remorse, mourning, and roads not taken. Only then can we help our students navigate a world where multiple, conflicting callings will always shape them into the complex, vulnerable creature they are.

Jason Mahn is an Associate Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Some of the above is taken from that essay and was presented at the NetVUE gathering hosted by California Lutheran University in March 2018. 

3 thoughts on “The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken

  1. Thanks for this post! Hannah Schell came out to Susquehanna U in February, and one thing our group discussion highlighted was a discomfort around these too-tidy narratives. I am looking forward to sharing your thoughts with that group.

  2. Great to have your voice on this blog site, Jason! Thank you for your wonderful (but challenging!) insights. My hope is that those of us who teach in the professions might wrestle with this and consider some of the implications it has for our students. Thanks again!

Leave a Reply