The Difference Is In How You Feel

One of my all-time favorite poems is by Robert Frost, the classic “The Road Not Taken.”

It was put into an arrangement for choir by Randall Thompson. I sang this version back in my choir geek days. It helped me to memorize the poem and I still recite it sometimes, when I forget my way.

The words have always given me comfort because of the extreme isolation I felt well into my twenties.

Like most kids growing up, I wanted nothing more than to fit in. But despite all the ways that I tried to change in order to get the attention I wanted, I still remained the black sheep of my family and friends. I’ve always been the weird, skinny kid who couldn’t get a tan. I grew up in the Georgia countryside (12 miles to the nearest gas station). I didn’t go to camp during the summer. I didn’t take dance lessons or gymnastics. No trick-or-treaters knocked on our door Halloween night. There were no neighborhood kids to ride bikes with because…there was no neighborhood. I even eschewed a Southern accent! Boredom ensued and social awkwardness followed. I used my downtime to think about how awful my life was and to dream about how great it would one day be. It’s no surprise that I’ve spent a lot of time in introspection since I was very young.

The problem was, I did not have the tools I needed to make sense of my thoughts and emotions.

Explosive anger, debilitating fear, jealousy of the life I thought I deserved and resentment of those who seemed to have it overwhelmed me–no, controlled me–to the point that I alienated myself even more.

I would cling to the words of this poem with the sincere hope that they were true. I would turn it’s imagery over and over in my 12-year-old mind, praying for clarity and strength. Would it really make all the difference if I rejected the common path?  I suspected that I had my work cut out for me.

As I entered the work force, my suspicions were confirmed. Those who were on the usual path seemed just as unhappy as I felt. They didn’t hesitate to complain, backstab, gossip, lie, cheat, and steal, regardless of their position or attained portion of the American Dream. To top it off, most of them were unhealthy, popping pills, scheduling surgeries and using up their vacation time in recovery. I began to question the status quo: If having the same thing as everyone else has doesn’t guarantee happiness, then what does?

Sitting under fluorescent lights the morning of 9/11/01, I reflected once again on the life I was choosing. And I decided to start collecting the tools I would need to hack through that thick overgrown brush that now obscured the road not taken.

I went back to school and studied Psychology theory, mostly in an effort to understand myself. The work of Humanist Carol Rogers, Albert Ellis, and others, spoke to me and I decided to try a few gems that I thought could improve my life. I used Rogers’ ideas of congruence to analyze my life at the time and to identify the changes I needed to make. I was able to make major lifestyle changes after a couple of years of painfully honest self-assessment. I quit smoking, began eating healthily, made peace with cooking and Nature, and turned my focus to creating versus lamenting. Congruence and its antithesis, incongruence, are possibly the most important psychological concepts to understand. In a nutshell, living in congruence means you are living authentically, living true to who you sense you have the potential to be with an unconditional positive regard for yourself.

Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy helped me to sort through my emotional jungle. Even before I discovered meditation and formal self-analysis, I began to question the rationality of my own thoughts. Simply by singling out seed thoughts and asking myself, “Where is the evidence to support that?” I learned that I was not, in fact, the rational person I fancied myself to be. But these exercises were tremendously helpful and took me to a deeper understanding of myself. Over the course of many years, without professional help, I was able to temper my daily explosive reactivity using this method. This was a very long period of intense struggle and humiliating insight for me.

Much later, I discovered that these tools are part and parcel of the major tenets of Eastern thought. How freaking amazing and exciting was this discovery?!! It wasn’t that these methods were just “discovered” by psychologists; they were included in ancient philosophies! ANCIENT. PHILOSOPHIES. Um, we’ve known about them for a very long time! Why did I have to go to college to learn how to even approach my emotional health?! Mind = Blown.

So, is it worth it to figure your shit out so that you can do the work you’re supposed to do on this planet in the small amount of time you’re allotted to do it? Absolutely.

 Choose the road not taken. Hack through the overgrowth. The difference is in how you feel.

“…Two roads diverged in a wood and I–

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Today, my work is of my own choosing. I share the lessons I’ve learned and I get to watch others grow into their own happiness. And I feel awesome.