Writer’s Workshop: Mistake, or Something Else?

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.

Everyone recognizes these lines, right? They’re from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a favorite of high school teachers and thus the bane of high school students. One discussion that always comes up is what the title means. I mean, it’s simple enough, right? He tells us the whole story right there: he’s out walking in the woods, he comes upon a fork in the road, and being unable to take both of them, looks down each path and chooses the one with less wear. At the end, he seems to regret it, as if he made a mistake.

He doesn’t. But at 42 (his age when he wrote this), he was prone to ask himself “what if I did this instead of that? How might my life have been different?” That’s something that he’ll never know, at least until the day time travel is perfected, and even then you have to wonder. Until then, it’s an issue of playing “what might have been.”

Playing that game is really futile. I know, because I play it a lot. Helps me get to sleep some nights, keeps me up other nights. The games don’t enter my dreams, most of which now involve using really filthy bathrooms. (Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know, and any time I get to browse through one of those “Interpret Your Dreams For Fun And Profit” books, there never seems to be a section on what using a filthy bathroom is supposed to mean.) But no matter how rosy a picture I can paint of my life had I done y instead of x, the fact is, I made a choice and now have to contend with what that decision meant. Besides, there are just too many variables: to put it in mathematical terms, if {x1, x2, … xn} is the set of alternatives and {y1, y2, … yn} is the set of consequences, one can never really know whether the mapping between both is a one-to-one or one-to-many relation. There are just too many variables involved.

So there are no real “mistakes” in life like there are in math, like 1 + 1 = 3. There are only alternatives, each of which has its own consequences. The trick is to learn to recover from what happens. Kind of like the old “adventure” games, where you say “turn right” and it tells you “you are in a forest, in front of a fork in the road.” Choosing the left fork leads you on one adventure, the right on another. Which is what Frost was probably talking about.

I’ve been interested lately in the idea of parallel universes that are just slightly different from each other. I’d be interested to know what’s happening to me there.

Mama Kat’s prompt was to write a post based on the word “mistake.” Hope you’ve enjoyed it.