Saturday, September 20, 2008

A snake in the road less traveled

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Walking along an isolated, quiet path on a lazy end-of-summer day I stumbled upon an odd sight. There in front of me was a man holding a fishing pole, methodically throwing rocks into the middle of the lane. As I approached him he turned around and told me that there was a snake up ahead and that he thought it might be poisonous.

He was throwing rocks at it to try and scare it into moving...but it just wouldn't budge. Now being a city guy myself, I don't know the first thing about snakes, poisonous or not, however I did know that I didn't really feel like finding out firsthand if this guy was right. But I also wasn't going to let such a lowly creature stop me from continuing my hike. So I too began to launch various projectiles at this reptile and together the two of us joined forces to try and get it to move. But nothing. Eventually the other guy worked up enough courage to try and tap the snake with his fishing pole. Nothing. The snake would move its head but continued to stay put blocking any further advance.

Eventually my comrade decided he would pick up his stuff and go back in the other direction...I on the other hand refused to allow this lowly animal such an easy victory. So I asked my new friend to wait for a minute and to call for help if this thing (which again, neither of us was sure was actually a threat) actually bit me. Taking a deep, nervous breath, I proceeded cautiously...slowly...trying not to startle this creature...

...which never even budged from where it was laying. Oddly enough I felt a moment of pity for this snake which just seconds ago had inspired fear in me but now appeared to be just be slimy, pathetic creature. As I looked back at the fisherman who still refused to continue even though I had just passed by with no incident, I felt even worse for him - for being even more pathetic than the snake that just continued to sit there, nearly motionless...looking about as threatening as one of the small branches I had thrown at it just minutes earlier. And so I continued on my way lost in thought about what this experience meant.

The first thing that occurred to me was that Robert Frost poem The Road not Taken. It's very easy to follow the path others have already explored and have proven is safe (well except for this fisherman apparently)...but if we never go out on our own, what progress can we ever hope to achieve? And if we choose the road less traveled we must expect to come across something that we are not prepared for. The unknown. The snake in the road is a metaphor for the irrational fear we have all experienced when jumping into something unfamiliar. All too often we are held back by this fear when in reality if we confront it we can achieve great things.

I mean, in all experience was really pretty mundane. The snake was in all likelihood not venomous and all I "accomplished" by not turning back was feeling some pride in the fact that I was apparently braver than some stranger that I will most likely never see again for the rest of my life. My only victory was over an irrational fear that was based purely on a lack of knowledge. But that's still something. And it's something that too many people allow to control their lives.

Too often we allow these irrational moments to hold us back. We avoid situations that scare us rather than confronting them head on. We go around neighborhoods that scare us instead of taking the shortest path to our destination. We ignore world events that scare us because we are afraid of the picture of reality that they paint. We avoid conversations about topics that scare us because we don't want to deal with the consequences.

We isolate and insulate and shelter ourselves from the truth because we are afraid to confront it. We create barriers and safety nets around ourselves, that only serve to stifle our advancement.

All because of the unknown. The irrational. The snake in the road that we fear but do not fully understand.

This is what we must overcome if we are to ever progress in our lives. Or, like my friend the fisherman we can just allow our fears to control us and go home empty handed, never knowing what lies farther down the road we were too afraid to take.