The Road (Not) Taken


I came across an opinion piece in the NYT by the writer Tim Urban that had a good news/bad news structure to it.  

The bad news was called Depressing Math. It means we don’t have nearly the amount of time we think we have to do what we love. The example he used that hit closest to home for me was about spending time with his parents. He wrote:

I grew up spending some time with my parents almost every day. Since turning 19 and moving away for good, I’ve averaged about 10 to 15 days a year with them. If I’m one of the lucky ones, I’ll have quality time with my parents until I’m 60. That means that the day I headed off to college, I had something like 350 remaining parent days total — the amount of time I had with them every year of my childhood.

Tim Urban

I’m on the parent side of this time scale, and it is indeed bad and sad news to think I’ve used up the overwhelming amount of time I have to spend with my kids. It makes me that much more grateful that both are at home with us right now.

An example of Depressing Math.

I’ve engaged in some Depressing Math in my own life and in my writing. I once estimated the number of books I will read in the remaining years of my average male lifespan. Sure enough, it was a depressing number. In my novel In Flight, the main character, Robert, calculates how many times in his remaining years he and his wife might have sex. He immediately regretted performing that calculation.

Now for the Good News

The good news part, according to Urban, is that we greatly underestimate the possibilities in life that remain ahead of us. This image he created has really resonated with me.

There are many life paths still open to you.

There’s the single green path we took to reach the present moment, and conversely, all those roads in black that we didn’t take. Sometimes we can’t help but wonder what might have become of us if we’d taken one of those other paths. The road not taken is fertile territory for writers, from the romantic comedy Sliding Doors to novelist Kate Atkinson’s compelling Life After Life to the poet Robert Frost’s, “The Road Not Taken.”

The last lines of Frost’s poem:

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Of course it made all the difference. If he’d taken the road more traveled, that too would have made all the difference because his life would have followed a different path from that point forward.

We’ve all probably made a handful of decisions that significantly shaped our lives. Big decisions such as career or partner or where to live, but small decisions could just as easily lead to a huge impact on the shape and course of our lives: the day you happened to buy the lottery ticket, for example, or the time you crossed the street without looking.

I’ve begun a small personal project of tracing the path my life has taken, noting various decision points (at least the ones I can remember). It’s been an enlightening ride. The key is to follow the path without succumbing to regret.

Urban writes:

Wallowing in regret carries an implicit assumption that we had agency in the past — that we could have had those other life paths if only we had made better decisions. When we think about the future, though, that feeling of agency often disappears, which can leave us feeling resigned and even hopeless.

Nick Urban

This is where the good news green side of the illustration comes in: there is so much still open to us, at almost any age. The fact is, we are not on a set path and can change our course at any time in small or significant ways. I’m starting to consider what path I might take next. What about you?

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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