This post is about two different attitudes to our path through life — Lao Tsu’s sticking to the main road and Robert Frost’s taking the one less travelled. Perhaps we need them both.
With but a small understanding
One may follow the Way like a main road,
Fearing only to leave it;
Following a main road is easy,
Yet people delight in difficult paths.
Lao Tsu — Tao Te Ching, ch. 53
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 travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost — The Road Not Taken (final stanza)
These quotes are both extraordinary pieces of poetry. In a small space and with simple vocabulary they capture an attitude to life.
Robert Frost speaks with a decidedly modern accent — he captures the value of individualism. (Though his ‘sigh’ stops it from being simple minded bravado celebrating the heroic individual).
Lao Tsu speaks with a different tone. He captures a modest contentment and celebrates the easy and is (at least) puzzled by people’s delight in difficulty.
These differing attitudes aren’t direct opposites. Lao Tsu isn’t advocating simply following the crowd — especially not in their delight in difficulty. Robert Frost didn’t take the path more difficult or complicated.
The biggest contrast I see is in the attitude of the speaker to the crowd. Robert Frost, like a true modern, distinguishes himself in his solitude. Lao Tsu does not see the need for this. A Chinese sage may seek to ‘leave no footprints’, but a modern Westerner rarely has this as their ambition. We modern Westerners are more likely to find satisfaction in leaving a legacy: the importance of which may be its goodness — but, generally speaking, the more goodness the better.
Another contrast is the difference in the speakers’ attitudes to decision. Lao Tsu has certainly made a commitment to his path. Yet the decision is not highlighted. For Robert Frost the decisive moment is that of decision — it is the choice that makes the difference; and this choice was made at a particular moment. For Lao Tsu the emphasis is on continuity — following a path rather than deciding which path to follow.
I don’t want to pretend that the contrast between the two attitudes is simple, and I don’t want to prefer one over the other. I want to hold on to both.
I relish Lao Tsu’s observation that only small understanding is required. In our schooling systems cleverness is rewarded. In academia it is the exploration of complexity that often gains attention. Ours is a culture where, “There is a simple to answer to any problem: and it is usually wrong” can be used as a throw away line. We need to listen to Lao Tsu — the advocate of simplicity.
For myself (someone not particularly academically bright), I have found that sticking with what is obvious can be very helpful. Knowing enough to take the next step may be all that is required.
I love Robert Frost’s piece for its sturdy individualism — especially for that sigh which stops it becoming grandiose bravado. At the moment it is very obvious that our way of living on our planet is destructive and unsustainable. And there is no agreement on how to live sustainably. In this situation it is essential to try the less trodden paths. In our personal lives it is often necessary to leave the roads cut by our parents and upbringing to find our own gifts and contributions.
For me (middle aged, middle class, white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, and male), it was necessary to question my upbringing. Understanding that our physicality had been marginalised by Christianity (a religion founded on incarnation!) was my biggest journey on a road less travelled — for some of those I grew up with, finding truth in psychology was regarded as dangerous (if not heretical).
I feel drawn more to the serenity of Lao Tsu, while I suspect I have acted throughout my life far more like Robert Frost. I’m wondering which you find more attractive — Lao Tsu or Robert Frost. And which attitude you feel you could do with more of in your life. Let me know in the comments.
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