One of the joys of living in rural Northumberland is being able to feel the movement of the seasons. If you walk the same paths regularly you become familiar in a very intimate way, with the small changes. It makes me aware that whilst we talk of the drama of the seasons it is actually a slow, imperceptible change from one to another. It also gives me a chance to take photographs of the world around me, and use them as gracenotes.
This picture called to mind the poem by Robert Frost, hence the caption.
The Road Not Taken has become a famous poem about choosing an alternative path, “ploughing your own furrow” or which ever cliché you prefer about the cliché of being unconventional. What’s very odd is that it has nothing to do with such ideas. As the line itself says “Though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same”.
It is in fact a poem about indecision, and regret. We all, in life, make choices, sometimes willingly, sometimes knowingly at other times because of external pressures. We may not even be aware that a choice is being made, or that it will impact on us down through the years. In the poem Frost is speaking first of the refusal to choose because we are afraid we may make the wrong decision. The fear that the grass is always greener on the other path can paralyse.
Often part of the benefit of therapy is accepting the road you are on now, letting go of the regret for the choice made in the past, even if that does mean grieving for lives that were never lived. This grieving can be especially strong if it involves anger at others who we feel made choices for us.
In order to not be telling our life story with a sigh we need to accept, with an open heart, the choices we have made, and the place we have arrived at. This does not mean we need to accept abuse, or situations which make us unhappy as simply our lot. The paralysis of indecision can play a part here too though. Standing looking at another path, telling yourself change is impossible because we are caught in a cloud of what if’s and if only’s.
A technique of CBT is to look at those what if’s and drill down to the bedrock, the fear underpinning them. Whilst I am not a CBT counsellor challenging a statement such as “I am too old to change” can reap rich rewards. To return to our hypothetical client. Via counselling she realises the long suppressed emotions stirred up by her children taking a path denied to her. After exploring these what is stopping her from embarking on higher education now?
This is another truth Frost expressed that is ignored by the “taking the alternative route” misinterpretation. Why has the traveller decided that both paths cannot be walked? Why are they limiting the choice to some irreversible decision? It is rare in life that we cannot change direction, although it may be hard, and of course income, health, responsibilities will affect our ability to turn back and take another path. All too often though what really holds us back is the fear of change, and the worry we may be judged as having chosen wrongly.
This fear can be challenged by accepting that different choices may be right at different times. If we move away from the idea of only ever being able to chose one path, and regretting the path not taken, we also leave the idea that changing paths is a weakness or a failure behind. Helen does not need to see her life up to now as a failure, or wrong, or a bad choice, to want to try something new, to try a different path. Change does not have to be about rejecting everything that came before, just as the movement from one season to another does not happen in a moment.
* The client examples used are hypothetical and bear no relationship to any actual clients.