It has been called “the most misread poem in America” (David Orr, The Atlantic, 19 May 2018). The poem is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and Frost seems to have shared that opinion. He warned his readers, “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky.” The way people misread Frost’s poem may be the way they misread the choice Moses put to Israel, between life and death, blessings and curses (Deut. 30:15-20). “Choose life,” he told them, “so that you and your descendants may live” (v. 19). It may be the most misunderstood choice in our faith.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” the poem begins, as a walker ponders the choice forced on him and his inability to travel both roads. Both seemed equally inviting, yet the walker, “knowing how way leads on to way,” realized he could not choose one and return later to travel the other. The choice of one road meant the irreversible rejection of the other: there would be no way to alter the choice later.
That’s the way Israel’s choice in the wilderness is often interpreted. Choose to obey God’s commandments, and you will be blessed with eternal life; choose to follow other gods, and you will be cursed with eternal death. Everything, that interpretation claims, hinges on the choice you make today, and there will be no going back, no second chance to choose the right way.
Speaking about the trickiness of his poem, Frost explained it had been meant as a joke for an indecisive walking companion. Both options, both roads, seemed equally inviting – “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black” – and “ages and ages hence,” he’d be telling with a sigh how his choice had “made all the difference.” The joke was that the choice really would make no difference in the end; it would simply prevent him from being stalled in mid-journey. Just choose, Frost joked to his indecisive friend; get on with it, and realize what matters is the journey and not the destination.
Some folks believe the choice they make today will determine their eternal destiny, whether they will enter the kingdom of heaven in the end or be forever excluded. But remember, St. Paul tells where we end up has been settled. In Christ we were being reconciled to God, and nothing we do can invalidate that reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). The good news Jesus proclaimed is that the kingdom of God people have been waiting for is at hand (Mark 1:15); it’s spread upon the earth and people don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113).
So if our relationship with God is settled and cannot be undone, what difference does our choice make today, the choice between blessings and curses, between life and death? Our choice helps us taste the great banquet that’s already spread before us (Luke 14:15-24); it determines whether we feast on God’s grace today or fast from it, whether we enjoy this life in every moment or simply endure it until (we hope) a better life comes along, usually after our death.
“Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee,” Frost wrote, “And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.” God’s great big joke on us is that how we choose today makes no difference in where we spend eternity, but how we choose today makes all the difference in how we spend this present moment – whether it’s a life of feast or of famine, of blessings or curses, whether it’s a life that really is life or a life that’s a living hell. How we choose today makes an eternal difference in how we experience the gift of life today.
Thomas Merton wrote, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for” (My Argument with the Gestapo). Answering those two questions, I believe, as much as anything else, will reveal whether we get the joke or not: what are you living for, in detail, and what keeps you from it?
But it can be difficult to answer them directly. Instead, we can sidle up to them by asking three other questions, then by pondering our responses carefully, prayerfully, by living with them for a long time, and by continuing to work with them and refine them – and by letting our answers work with us and refine us. And here are the questions.
1. What is your greatest need?
2. What is your greatest hope?
3. What is your most urgent question?
Share your responses with me, confidentially, then let’s consider the kinds of responses we have in common with each other. We may find in them some keys to the blessings we enjoy in a life that really is life.