I’ve never been one for making New Year’s resolutions, but I used to make a lot of “next year” resolutions.
As in: next summer I’ll have a bikini body.
As in: next semester I’ll have the courage to approach my professors about research positions.
As in: next year I’ll be good enough to be the mental health advocate I’ve always wanted to be.
And every time “next year” came around, I had achieved absolutely nothing.
For some of the resolutions, I didn’t achieve them because they were weren’t achievable—you can read here about my realization that, no matter how skinny I got, I was never going to have a bikini body.
But there were plenty of resoluations that I could have—easily—achieved. So why hadn’t I made progress towards any of my goals?
Oddly enough, the answer to my problem lied within the valedictorian speech I gave when I graduated in May 2014—but I didn’t realize this until about six months ago, sitting alone in my tiny little sublet apartment.
I played French horn at my old school, and so I performed Pomp and Circumstance at every single graduation ceremony from 5th grade to when I left sophomore year. That’s six valedictorian (and salutatorian) speeches I had to sit through. Add a seventh for when my brother graduated a few years before.
You know that Robert Frost poem about the road less traveled, the path that you need to take so that it can “make all the difference” in your life? The first four valedictorian speeches I had ever heard were about this poem.
Unlike what many believe, it’s not called “The Road Less Traveled.” It’s called “The Road Not Taken”:
Two road diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for the passing there
Had worn them about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I always thought quoting this poem in a speech was cliché. However, during my own senior year, I struggled to find a topic for my speech. I knew that I definitely didn’t want to talk about “The Road Not Taken”—it is, after all, every teenager’s fear to be mainstream—but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After all, this is what, for the entirety of middle school, I had thought valedictorian speeches were supposed to be about.
For nostalgia’s sake—and maybe just for shits and giggles—I pulled “The Road Not Taken” up on my computer and read it for the first time in years. What I found surprised me.
Turns out, “The Road Not Taken” isn’t about what everyone says it is.
Actually read it: in the second stanza, it says that the two paths are worn about the same. In the third stanza, it says that they both “equally lay” untrodden. And although the paths are very similar, the narrator says that the second one is more appealing than the first, because the second was grassy and the first disappeared into the underbrush. From popular interpretations of the poem, you would think that he took the road that led into the underbrush—the more difficult of the two choices, which would, by extension, make it the less traveled. However, he didn’t. He took the easier, grassier path.
In the last stanza—the most famous stanza—the narrator says that it is only “ages and ages” later that he will claim the road he took was the less traveled, and that this decision made any difference in his life.
Translation: the choice was arbitrary. “The Road Not Taken” is, in no way, telling us to take the less traveled path. Instead, it’s saying that we often assign significance to arbitrary decisions.
As this Smithsonian article about the poem puts it: “We are following no one. We have to choose, and most terrifyingly, the choice may not actually matter.”
The choice might not actually matter.
I had to ask myself: why do we always insist that this poem tells us to take the road less traveled, when it actually tells us that neither path is going to make a difference in our lives?
In the end, I did write my speech about the most cliché of poems I could have written about. But it was a good thing—because here is my answer:
Honestly, I think we’re afraid of being like everyone else—of not being unique, of being similar or mainstream or part of the crowd. Of being forgettable. Especially as adolescents, or teenagers, or young adults, or whatever we are, we don’t want to be like other people—we want to be cooler, funnier, more well-liked, wiser, quirky, aloft. And it’s only natural—we’ve been pushed since the beginning to take a “road less traveled” because without it, it seems, we’ll not be special enough. We’ll just be one of the masses.
But the thing is, there isn’t a path that leads to some “manufactured uniqueness” that will set us apart from everyone else. I’m not going to stand up here and tell you go a certain way over the other, because your self-worth doesn’t sit on some pedestal at the end of the less-traveled path—and it’s not something you pick up like bread crumbs along the way.
(Looks like I’ve always been a fan of em dashes, oh my!)
I went on to say that our self-worth exists no matter how mainstream or “normal” our life choices are (which is ironic, considering why I didn’t want to write about this poem in the first place). I expanded on that idea and, while it is an important message, I’m not going to go into anymore detail. For our topic of New Year’s resolutions, I’ve already gotten to the point I needed to make.
Our value as a human being—and our efficacy—doesn’t lie at the end of a certain path.
That means: my ability to be a mental health advocate doesn’t lie at the end of 12+ years of schooling.
That means: my ability to wear a bikini doesn’t lie at the end of months of diet and exercise.
I kept setting these goals of “next year, next year,” but it became a loop of “I’ll be happy with myself when I manage to do x, I’ll be happy with myself when I manage to do y.”
I realized that if I kept thinking, “I’ll be a good writer once I have a blog” or “I’ll finally be a real advocate once I start working in a mental health lab,” I was never going to get anything done.
If I wanted to be a good writer with a successful blog by “next year,” I had better start a blog. If I wasn’t a good writer, then I would work to become one.
If I wanted to be a mental health advocate “next year,” I had better start advocating. If my opinions weren’t thought through well enough, then I would connect with others in the field and learn.
If I wanted to wear a bikini “next summer,” I had better start wearing them now.
Basically, I decided to stop making resolutions. Instead, I made the decision to be resolute.
My resolutions became purposes. My dreams became drives. My insecurities became room for improvement—or, in case of my post-pills body, something that didn’t need to be improved, but loved.
Instead of saying, “I’ll be ‘good’ by next year,” I said, “I’ll be a little better tomorrow.”
And in the past six months since decided to be resolute, I have developed the confidence I needed to start my career in mental health. I have completed two research practicums and am about to start a third. I even wore a bikini—and no, it wasn’t that easy.
But I’m happy. Happier than any other time in my life, because I feel capable. Valuable. And I’ll even be a bit more capable tomorrow.
I do realize, of course, that my resolutions are still easier to achieve than others might be—they are concrete and consist of me going out and doing something, while others’ resolutions include overcoming obstacles, conquering fears, or achieving something less concrete. Maybe “being resolute” doesn’t work out for you because there’s no actual step you can take towards achieving your goal.
And that’s okay. This is where my speech comes in again:
Your value as a human being doesn’t depend on whether you have already achieved your goals or not.
Definitely try hard to reach your goals—goals keep us grounded and allow for self-improvement. But remember that you are still worth every bit as much now as you will be then.
I’ll leave with with the last paragraph of my speech:
We shouldn’t have to care if that path we want to take is the path everyone else takes, or the one less traveled, or a new one that requires a machete, or if we have to climb to the tops of the trees to achieve it. We shouldn’t be scared. We should completely and wholly own ourselves, and it is only then that we will be able to become the person that we want—not anyone else, but we want—to be.