“I am not Hermione Granger.”
As the end of shopping period draws near, I suspect that most Harvard students share this sentiment. Unlike the girl from Harry Potter who can magically go back in time to take multiple courses in one time slot, we have to choose. If my dream seminar and the least painful Ethical Reasoning core both take place at, say, Thursdays at ten o’clock—well, too bad. There’s nothing to be done. Choices must be made, simply because of the inescapable fact that we are beings who live in time.
Perhaps having to choose one class over another is not a deep tragedy. But the longing not to decide—not to cut off one way of life irrevocably—goes deeper than surface decisions. It is more than the simple desire for more time to do more work. Indeed, it is a recognition of mortality. Choices are only irrevocable because we have a limited amount of time—because sooner or later we will die, and all choice will be stopped.
This feeling is heightened almost to grief in Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” Despite what greeting cards and sixth-grade English classes say, this poem is not about having courage to go against the crowd and be yourself; it is about having to choose between two goods, knowing that one good will be lost forever.The Road Not Taken Robert Frost Two roads 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, just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that, the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I marked 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 sight Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
“The Road Not Taken” is a lament for all that is inevitably lost when we must choose between two ways. And part of me sees the justice in this grief. Mortality is terrible, not just because it cuts off life at a point, but because it reaches back through life and makes decisions terrible. But this raises a question—is not this grief at lost good simply a refusal to trust that God will lead us to the highest good? If we believe that God is sovereign over all, and is involved in every facet of our lives, are there really any decisions that are perfectly ethically neutral? Are there situations in which either choice is acceptable, or will we always be able to use a combination of prayer, advice, and reason to discern one choice that is better than the others? In the abstract, it may seem that, as long as I endeavor to serve God through my profession, it doesn’t matter what kind of work I do. But what, then, am I to do with my particular God-given talents? What about my interests? What about the needs of the world around me? And, if other things really were equal, would God give me guidance, or leave me to choose on my own? Is this tragedy of choice an evil brought into the world with sin and death, or is it an illusion caused by our failure to recognize God’s sovereignty?
The answer to these questions aren’t completely solid in my own mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I returned to write about this topic again soon. In the meantime, let’s keep thinking about it together.