Monday, July 14, 2008

The Unknown Road

We have a common misreading in American culture of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Maybe it's our American pride, our blazing-new-territories kind of attitudes, our love of individualism. I don't know why, but we don't see anything but the last three lines of that poem. Every high school valedictorian, freshman English teacher, and pandering politician believes that the poem is championing taking the untrodden pathway.

If you take a closer look, the poem describes being at a fork in the road and having to choose. The traveler can't take both pathways. So he examines them. This is where we as Americans stop understanding. He says the second is "just as fair" and that the "passing there / had worn them really about the same," that "both that morning equally lay" untrodden. He chooses the second one not because it has any specific advantage. He chooses it because he cannot split himself and take both paths.

In the last stanza, he sees himself in the future, "somewhere ages and ages hence," justifying that choice by claiming that the road he chose was the right one - the untrodden one, the greater, but if that were the truth, the first 17 lines of the poem would have set it up differently. The poem is not about blazing the new trail and going against the flock. The poem is about how to deal with the reality that you couldn't choose both paths - and the other might have led you somewhere greater. You'll never know. So "with a sigh" you tell your story as if your choice was the braver. It's self-deception.

This is not a new reading of the poem. It's what any college poetry professor will say regarding the piece, and the ironic interpretation that Frost intended. But I've had the text in my head a lot recently.

I stumbled onto this discussion in an online diabetes forum: "if you had had the choice between a life with or without diabetes, would you have chosen diabetes?" I considered my response before reading the other posts. But after reading people's responses, I felt I couldn't post. I felt that anything I could have posted would have been misread as negative. The respondents seemed to categorically choose diabetes, citing the claims that it made them the strong, responsible activists for their own health that they have become. Were they just making lemonade from their lemon of a pancreas?

I can't help but see the ending lines of Frost at play. If I had had the choice, standing in that yellow wood, between diabetes and no diabetes, I would never knowingly have chosen to have a difficult chronic illness. I believe that I was growing into a strong, bright, positive person before the condition manifested itself in me and that I would have been the same strong, bright, positive person I am today without struggling with and against an illness. Yes, I'm sure it has contributed to my strength. I don't deny people's experience of the personal growth they know through their diabetes. But there are healthy experiences in our lives that develop character, too. I don't believe that I "needed" diabetes to fashion me into the me that I know and love today. But, as I explain in my mushroom analogy, it's not something I can separate myself from anymore. I didn't have that choice. For one biological reason or another, perhaps randomly, my body destroyed its own pancreas. I accept it. I have never been one to shake my fist and be angered that there is still no cure. I'd settle for awareness, education, and research. I have lived with diabetes for as long as I remember. I have accepted it as a part of my life that I didn't have a choice in. And I just kept right on living.

I suppose there is always the argument that, if things hadn't gone just as they've gone, you wouldn't have the life/family/spouse/happiness you have today. Sure, that may be true. But you don't know that. I might still have met and fallen in love with my husband. Again, I can't know anything other than the trail I took.

But, seriously, if given the choice, how could you really
choose this path? What kind of myth would I be participating in to find myself "ages and ages hence" claiming that diabetes was the better choice for me? I can't help but find it self-deceiving. I'd like to think that I would have been me either way. I happen to be me with diabetes - but only because there was no fork in that road. But, seriously, if someone had been able to give me the option back on that day of my diagnosis? "Bring it on" would have seemed an ignorant and masochistic response.

I'm not so arrogant as to claim that the hypothetical split in the road might not have yielded a better option. So in the safety of an imaginary scenario, sure. I'd happily turn down the diabetes. It's a chance to divide yourself into both of those half-travelers and see what life might have been like. What's the worst that could imaginarily happen?

1 comment:

type1emt said...

I love your poems..(found them through TuDiabetes)if its ok, I'll be adding you to my blogroll.