Thursday, September 01, 2016

How We Live With The Consequences

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

~Robert Frost 

I was talking the other evening with a man about 15 years my senior with whom I've chatted on an irregular basis for the past decade. I don't know him well. Most of our relationship is based on sidewalk conversations about politics, although this time we were talking about a mutual acquaintance. I mentioned her career aspirations and he responded by telling me that, as a young man, he'd been accepted into the Air Force Academy, but had turned it down, in part because the Vietnam War was such "a horrible mess," but mostly, it seems, for lack of enthusiasm. 

"I could be a retired fighter pilot right now. It's funny how your whole life is changed by decisions that seem so little at the time."

I said what you're supposed to say, reminding him of the life that would not have been had he opted for the Air Force. "Exactly," he said, "I would have probably died in Vietnam. Still, you wonder."

The road not taken calls us all, although speaking for myself, I was never one to stand long and look as far as I could. Impetuosity drove most of the major turning point decisions of my life. I was young. It's in the nature of youth to leap. That's the way we're designed. If by some strange magic we could arrange life such that we got to make all our big choices in the ripeness of our maturity, nothing would ever happen: we'd all still be living in basement apartments below our parents' homes.

But I know what this would-be-retired-fighter-pilot was talking about. I sometimes wonder what might have been had I, say, not turned in my baseball cleats after a senior year in which I'd struggled at the plate, shrugging it off as not fun anymore. One guy I played with back then wound up with a Major League career. We weren't that far apart back then: that could have been me.

Of course, had I gone that way, I could also be dead, but who knows? I might also be a great and humble Hall of Famer who then chose to spend the 20 years of his retirement in a second career as a preschool teacher in Seattle with the exact same family I have now!

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. 

As the parent of a teenager, I'm quite conscious of the decisions I made around her age that set me on the path of my life. She seems more clear sighted than I was, but really, no one can see beyond where it bends in the undergrowth. The parents of one of her friends recently complained of her son's perceived lack of direction, rolling her eyes, "He told my husband and me that we had it all wrong: he says we need to learn to not take everything so seriously." I didn't say it, but from where I sit a half century in, the kid's got it about right. Youth is the time to follow passions; to chase dreams. You've got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Believe me, there will be plenty of time later to worry about paying bills.

Whether road less traveled or no, we must each be left to make our own decisions when we come to those turning points. It's foolishness to suggest that the wisdom of age has any advantage over youthful impetuosity: a clear sight behind ourselves sheds no special light on the path that lies ahead of another. And besides, if there's anything I've learned, it's that the measure of a life well-lived is not calculated in the rightness of decisions, because in the long run it always comes down to the flip of a coin. No, the better part of living well means making decisions, embracing them, then making a life of the consequences. It's only in knowing this that we old folks have something to teach the kids, and even then most of what they learn from us is by watching how we live with the consequences of our own decisions.

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