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?
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Thanks for your writings on these pages. The above post sums up exactly my life’s difficulty. Perhaps depression is an illness of trying to reconcile wanting to be an artist, with living in a world where so much (non-creative, difficult work) needs doing? I dream of being an artist, but feel a sense of responsibility to contribute… I am trying to accept myself and learn that I can contribute most by being most of all, myself. I am trying to find a path in the woods where I can combine my creative and self-expressive impulses which resonate deepest with my inner self, and where I can feel I am still contributing meaningfully and making the world a better place.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Zadia –
I agree that you contribute most by being yourself, and there are many ways to express the creativity you have. The problem I ran into – and perhaps it’s yours too (??) – is trying to do good in the world in ways that were excellent but not best suited for me. The result was a lot of stress that undermined me, even though I was making worthwhile contributions. I clung to a kind of polar thinking and imagined I could follow one path or the other, a creative path or a socially useful one, when in reality neither was quite right for me in the way I imagined them. I came to distrust my thinking since it was so fixed on a one-or-the-other opposition that just tore me apart. Ultimately, I was lucky enough to find a way that combined my talents in fulfilling work.
All my best to you in this search – it’s as important as anything else in your life.
I think this eloquently expressed description of life lived with depression might be very important. My thought is that the sense of tug-of-war between the two paths which is so ennervating is a dangerous smokescreen, so that the realness of an illness called depression is suppressed: once again, it can become ‘all myfault’ for not sticking to one path, rather than being enabled to move to dealing with the depression. I seem to have spent far too long, even aware of being a depressive, feeling that really, it’s not that I have a particular kind of mental and physical makeup with a tendency to depression, but that I am just a failure,a wimp, still as an aged adult the child who used to be told off for having ‘nine day wonders’ as the enthusiasms of discovery in growing up were filtered through ignorant, adult eyes. I wonder if others also feel there is something of real importance here in this ‘Meeting my Double’ piece?
Jeaninmersey – Thank you, I’m glad the post resonates with you. What you describe is exactly the trap that catches so many of us. I’ve only recently “snapped out” of that way of thinking (the culmination of years of work) and found the assumptions about myself were not ones I was going to live with any longer. (That’s the theme of the most recent posts.) As you say, the key step is to stop believing that depressive voice that says you’re not up to life and to see yourself as a whole human being with all sorts of talents but with a tendency to depression. It’s hard to believe I’ve spent so many years as an adult child, still caught up in the self-image my upbringing helped embed and still trying to make it right with parents.
All my best to you in making continued progress. Realizing what’s going on is a huge step toward recovery.
I have always loved that poem by Frost. Its a beautiful piece and an inspiration for anyone.
NathanKP – Imagination Manifesto
I’ve been back and forth with the two roads, the two lives, two selves. Sometimes they meet. Life is better then. But it keeps diverging, seemingly without my power or knowledge. I brought them together purposefully finally, making my art my living, such as it is. Still they try to wiggle apart taking me one direction or the other. I manage to maintain some balance, but it’s difficult, and sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.
John D says
Evan – The unity is there, but I spent so many years imagining, feeling that the two people/paths/ futures were impossible to reconcile. It just seemed a tension I couldn’t resolve without sacrificing one of the two completely. And that would tear me apart. (Of course, that is a good indication of the unity the two really comprise.) Thank you as always for your wise and helpful comments.
Dano – I’m glad to hear you’re doing OK these days. Your powerful posts often get me worried about what you’re going through. I’ve known many people who were crystal clear about the path they would follow from an early age – and they did it! In a sense, I’ve always felt writing is what would tie everything together for me, and that’s what’s happening now – though it’s taken a ridiculous number of years to get there. Thanks for your wonderful comment!
Clueless – One of the great things about the award business is the number of great blogs you get to learn about as the torch is passed on to so many. As with your list, there are always some new to me. Thanks for helping me discover them.
McKay K – I think you’ve hit it just right – not being able to find me. That sums it up beautifully – how to uncover again that fine person who’s missing somewhere in that smothering depression. I’m glad you’ve made such progress in getting to the root of the problem. And thank you so much for your thought about this blog. It’s helpful to think that the writing can be comforting. My best wishes to you!
Mckay K says
First let me complement you on how beautifully calming your site is. I, like one of you other readers, am impressed.
Secondly, I have suffered with depression on and off for over 30 years. I doubt I could have ever explained the feeling of disconnect as well as you have.
When I am suffering with sever depression, I can only describe it as not being able to find ME. By me I mean the happy and satisfied me.
Not the frightened, sad, unable to make a decision ( rational or not), individual who is smothering the person I know and love. I attempt to move the smother but they are too heavy-too massive. They are here and they insist on being reckon with.
The only way I could coax the smother off of ME, was to acknowledge that the fear of what ever the situation I was experiencing, had to be faced.
Once I faced the situation, I was able to see that I was the smother. I, by refusing (knowingly or unknowingly) to face the problem, was causing all sorts of other problems both mentally and physically. As a result, I was depressing the continuation of my life.
Clinically Clueless says
Please check out my post for today and the lower part of my slide bar.
Dano MacNamarrah says
My life has never been linear, balanced or focused, apart from my visual art. The latter has suffered when I am unable to handle the simple tasks of life and am yet to be hospitalized.
I have never chased anything other than being a painter. (Besides a couple of men…but hey)! My jobs have always been a way to raise the money to persue that which comes to me, gives me the ultimate pleasure: loss of self.
As my illness had progressed to the point that I am on Disability for it, I found it impossible to do almost anything.
Now that I’ve been alright for some time, I have been working as a restoration painter in a mansion. My trouble lies in that this is a big job and I find it hard to anything, when I come home.
I’m gearing up for a group project portrait show, with others who have mental health issues. But I can barely make it through my studio, because it’s so crammed from when I was sick and just throwing stuff in there!
I’m a trash-picker, hoarder and slob. Not so bad, when I used to move once a year and ditch a load. But I’ve been here almost a decade and, boys and girls, it’s not pretty!
Most of the time, I don’t worry too much. Taking care of people, animals and hopefully having a bit of fun is a good thing. But when I begin to get down, I obsess about the fact that I’m fat, ugly, a chaotic mess, broke and many darker things.
Ultimately, I’d say my life turns in circles, spirals, ellipses. Wherever I go, I’m always there, in some form or another.
Your blog is one of the most visually appealing I’ve visited (and I’ve visited many).
I find it easy to equate your depression with my alcoholism, in the split self sense. Living two lives was my life, nearly my death. When a new counselor told me that he could help me (with my depression and anger) but not until I got the monkey off my back, something switched on. I knew I had to do my own work first. It wasn’t long afterward that I checked myself into detox after a night of drinking…nearly 23 years ago.
When we see that they are both part of us we can really that in some sense the unity is already given.
When we listen to both we can hear their legitimate needs. I have never found these to be irresolvable or inconsistent.
Fritz Perls: to die and be re-born is not an easy thing. (Although it can be sometimes – Evan.)
John D says
Kimmy – That feeling that it’s a trap is so common. It’s another form, in my case, of blaming circumstances outside myself rather than looking honestly at what I’m bringing to the situation. I agree that the two paths are part of the journey so long as they flow out of who we are and haven’t been walked because we were expected to go that way and didn’t want to challenge the expectation.
Immi – I love those moments when the two come together – I’m glad you’ve found a way to do with your art, at least some of the time. For me, writing is the way I’m bringing the two together, and it’s been exciting to discover this. I wish you well!
ck – That’s interesting – you can bring those directions together by focusing on the goal. It’s a blessing to be able to see it clearly. For me the goal is exactly the uniting, integrating all these conflicting drives and interests. It’s the Jungian goal, really, of individuation – or whatever you want to call the process of living into the wholeness of who you are.
mylife – That is a good description of one of the worst states of being – no path to go down. For me that’s a sign of deep depression. If I can rally any defenses at all, it takes everything I’ve got just to keep going, perhaps quite mechanically putting one foot in front of the other, just moving. I hope those times get less and less frequent for you.
Nice post! I agree with Catatonic Kid, sometimes it is overwhelming because there seems like so many paths and I have no idea where to go. Even worse, at the darkest of times, I feel like there is no path to go down. That is when I feel like I have lost control of my life.
Catatonic Kid says
Beautiful post, John =)
Sometimes I think it’s not just two paths but many roads, many worlds which eventually came to share one thought in common, for me. One hope, one imagination, one dream of being whole, complete. Not tired anymore but rested and full.
Now when I get tired, as I often do, I know that it’s because I don’t have that unifying goal in sight. If I can keep my eye on the prize, so to speak, I find whichever road I’m on much easier to travel. But then I always was a goal-oriented person rather than the journey for the journey’s sake type.
I’ve been trying lately to see about ways to appreciate the journey for itself, though. Because it’s not that I don’t think it’s important.
This is exactly how I feel. If I am running back and forth trying to survive between the two kimmy’s, I am exhausted, but alive. If I stop, I feel like a shark that has stopped moving. Thinking about it. I know the two paths are part of my journey. I might not know it’s future purpose as of yet. So if I think it’s a trap, I feel like it’s a trap. I am thinking about my husband’s video games on Xbox 360. There are times that he finishes a game, but he didn’t win it because he has to go back and finish something. I think our personalities doesn’t allow us to rush through something. We have to do it right, we have to be perfect. Perhaps the more we can think about the tasks, the less trapped we would feel. I mean our existance isn’t fruitless. I truly feel we will understand one day.