"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
We also know that Robert Frost "took the road less traveled…and that has made all the difference.” But the first part of the poem is just as moving and important. On the re-read you will note that Frost was sorry he could not travel both paths and still be one traveler. The decision to take one over the other was bittersweet and difficult. He did not simply plunge forward to his less worn trail with a spirit of adventure. But he did move toward that less tread path with full mindfulness of his choice and full understanding that taking one path meant forever not taking the other.
It is this mindfulness that becomes essential as we look to the paths and un-tread meadows of our own lives. Following “The Path” is often demonized in America where everyone is special and inspiration is individualism. The tragic feel of a normal life does not lie in its normality, but in the lack of mindfulness that often takes us there.
For certainly, if you want to live in on a cul de sac in Middle America with 2 children and a golden retriever . . . then do it! There’s no inherent shame in that. The tragedy comes when people simply “find themselves” on the common path having not ever made a truly mindful decision at any given crossroads. As David Byrne of Talking Heads said, we are, “letting the days go by (and letting) the water hold us down.”
This is easy to see when we look back to the turn of the century or the 1950s and wonder why people were confined by societal convention. We wonder, “Why did they have so many children when it made life more difficult? Why didn’t she go to college if it was all she wanted? Why did they discourage him from pursuing his dream career?”
The answer is that they were on a path. More accurately “The” path that was expected for the time. Straying from it made them uncomfortable or even put fear in their hearts -- there were negative consequences, perceived or real, from straying.
It might be tempting to think that they, and you, could set aside emotion to make the best decisions possible in life. Maybe taking that path less traveled is a simple matter of divorcing fear or negativity from decision making.
This might be true. But before you beat yourself up too much about letting fear influence decisions, read up on how emotions are essential in decision making. Wired Magazine explained it this way in their article, The Neuroscience of Decision Making Explained in 30 seconds, “Feelings provide the basis for human reason—brain-damaged patients left devoid of emotion struggle to make the most elementary decisions… [and] negative emotional impact of losses is twice as intense as the positive effect of gains.”
In other words, not only do we use our emotions in all of our life decisions, but the fearful ones are essentially twice as motivating.
So, know that however you live your life, and make your decisions, being mindful of these emotional motivations is key. Balancing risk and reward is a daily struggle for everyone, but one must look at their chosen life path or trail objectively.
One way to do this is to place yourself in your future and look back. This will help give distance to both convention and emotion. Imagine your grandchildren judging your past life. Will they understand why you have chosen to do what you do? Will they see your life as a reflection of your mindful values and your passions? Or will your life be a reflection of convention and a path that you simply let happen?
Path taker or trail blazer -- there is no wrong decision. But it IS wrong not to mindfully decide if you want to follow the path or leave a trail.