About a hundred years ago, Robert Frost wrote a famous poem about two roads diverging in a wood: “And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler.” He makes his choice to take “the one less traveled by.” “Oh I kept the first for another day!/ Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/ I doubted I should ever come back.”
When I faced a choice of two roads to my own future, I believed I could follow both and be one traveler. Why were there two roads? I imagined there were two sides of myself – one creative, artistic – the other public, drawn to political and social change – and I needed both to feel whole. What followed from this attempt were years of struggling and failing to balance both, searching for the fulfillment I needed but finding it always just out of reach on either path. I tried sprinting down one for a time, then leaving that to cut through a brambled mile of thickets to get back to the other, sprint down that road for a while, cut back through the less and less penetrable undergrowth, hit the other again – and so on. What does that mean? Among other things, it means that I spend a lot of time between the roads in those thickets – lost.
Two lives, two careers, two destinies led to a perfect torment, a continuing inner battle about where to put my energy. If I focused too much on one path, I felt desperate that I would forever lose the second, but if I got active again on that other work, other life, I felt desperate that I would lose everything I had worked so hard for. To be on one road meant that for a time I would become that person completely and lose touch with the second self. I could not bear to lose either of those two me’s. So I spent or wasted much time in tension between the two choices, dissipating what energy I had in pure anxiety and confusion. The more I tried to follow both roads, the less progress I made on either one.
One path was a life devoted to writing and other forms of personal expression – that was me, totally me, reaching deep inside to hit the world with creative energies shaped into unforgettable stories, poems or whatever new genre I could invent. The second self was me wrapped in a mantle of social purpose, part of a budding movement to change the way government worked, to find a new place for public voices in the exercise of power. The public me, justified through a social role, came to feel more legitimate while the private writerly me was anxious, unsure, often blocked from inner creativity by skeins of winding fears. Escaping the tension usually meant following the public path because that choice removed the fear about an inner depth I could not face. The public me had to be out in the world avoiding that confusion, but whatever success I achieved felt incidental to what I felt I really wanted, what I really needed to feel myself, whole – and worthy of a place in this world.
What tied the two together was my need to fill the emptiness I felt inside. A depressive voice had me convinced that on my own I had no value as a person, and to escape that invading belief I had to reach outward to justify my life. But that was an emptiness that could never be satisfied in any way. It gave me a perverse hunger to fail, to prove that I was really that nothing the voice told me I was. It is no wonder I always felt lost in those impossible thickets, always trying to get through to something out of reach.
When I looked at those roads, the one I was on at the time was full of potholes, red lights, detours, long stretches under construction, the pavement giving out just ahead. And the one I’m not on just then is a straight sunlit road across wide open grasslands. It winds gently through the most beautiful hills I can imagine, follows stunning rivers, brings me safely to the ocean shore. The more distant it is from the road I’m following, the more beautiful it is. If I give up the tension of trying to run back and forth between the two, staying on the single path, I begin to sink into despair, convinced I will never get to that other destination, the one my soul longs for, the one I’ve always wanted to follow.
As time went on, I not only became exhausted trying to make sense of these two selves, giving each its due, trying to shift back and forth between them, I also started to see on each road someone approaching out of the hazy distance. No matter which path I was on, this figure always appeared, never quite close enough to see clearly but always moving in my direction, as if the walking motion never changed his position.
It dawned on me one day that the two roads I was trying to follow no longer diverged but were going to join, as if I had been moving steadily around two sides of a circle, destined to come in the end to the same spot. And the man in the distance who never quite arrived had to be me as well. Depression had run us both to ground. As a writer I could not break through the fear, as a professional working on public policy I was losing my grip. I had thought the problem was the tension between two lives, but in reality it was the depression that was cutting me apart. My double and I had to confront the same nemesis. If each of us could break through depression, we could get back together in the oneness I had always been without quite knowing it.
Do you find yourself thinking you’re trapped on one path or struggling horribly between two? How have you been able to resolve this, or is the tension still there?