Don’t Believe Everything You Think

We often think, after we read or hear something, we know exactly, what the speaker or writer meant.  It’s obvious.  Why would anyone think it meant something else?  Isn’t it clear?  Doesn’t everyone get out of this what I do?  Doesn’t everyone interpret this the way I do?  Doesn’t everyone interpret this (whatever “this” is) the way we’ve all heard or read, one is supposed to interpret “it” as to what it is supposed to mean?

Well…no.  Not everyone does. We often have the same misunderstandings, which is to say: we often have the same interpretations.  And, maybe our interpretations are “correct”-whatever that means.  Such, however, is another question.  Whether one comes from a secular or religious background, or mix of some sort, question the conventional wisdom pertinent to one’s world.  Learn to live within the tension of knowing one’s settled beliefs, about many things…could be mistaken.

Let me give us an example of what I mean.  Let’s take a very popular poem, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost.  I love this poem.  Many people do.  And yet, what are we to take from it?  What does it mean?

David Orr (see here) gives us much to consider.  Here is how most (many?) of us “hear” or interpret the poem—or here is how we have been told to interpret the poem:

“…Most readers consider ‘The Road Not Taken’ to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (‘I took the one less traveled by’) …”

And yet, Mr. Orr notes that:

“…On a word-for-word basis, it may be the most popular piece of literature ever written by an American.  And almost everyone gets it wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about ‘The Road Not Taken’—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons.”

What?  But how could this poem be about anything other than “triumphant self-assertion?”  He took the road, “not taken,” the one, “less traveled.”  Whereas all the lemmings, the sheep, took the safe route, the road they were told to take by their parents, high school counselors, pastors or priests; this brave soul, this maverick, stoically launched out on his own, on the path marked with the potential of danger, loss, and intrigue.

Right?  Isn’t that the way we read it or have been told/taught to read/interpret this poem?  Maybe we shouldn’t believe everything we think about the poem, however.  Again, Mr. Orr:

“…The poem’s speaker tells us he ‘shall be telling,’ at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths ‘equally lay / In leaves’ and ‘the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.’ So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.”

What?  Well, yes, upon a closer reading, if you will, there are clues we perhaps miss.  There is nothing about the one path, in its physical layout, that marks it differently than the other path.  Both lay in leaves and both are “worn” equally.  In other words, there is nothing physically different between the two roads or paths.  There is no evidence given for the writer to assume one road is more or less traveled than the other.

What might that mean?  Again, Mr. Orr:

“…the speaker will be claiming ‘ages and ages hence’ that his decision made ‘all the difference’ only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. ‘The Road Not Taken’ may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, ‘the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’ But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Now, Mr. Orr goes on to note that:

“…Poems, after all, aren’t arguments—they are to be interpreted, not proven, and that process of interpretation admits a range of possibilities, some supported by diction, some by tone, some by quirks of form and structure. Certainly it’s wrong to say that ‘The Road Not Taken’ is a straightforward and sentimental celebration of individualism: this interpretation is contradicted by the poem’s own lines. Yet it’s also not quite right to say that the poem is merely a knowing literary joke disguised as shopworn magazine verse that has somehow managed to fool millions of readers for a hundred years.”

In other words, we are struck here with a paradox.  Whether we take the poem to mean what the conventional wisdom tells us it means or whether we take this closer (different?) reading, the poem is perhaps big enough to contain both meanings—to lessor or greater extents.  Finally, Mr. Orr writes:

“…The poem both is and isn’t about individualism, and it both is and isn’t about rationalization. It isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing so much as a wolf that is somehow also a sheep, or a sheep that is also a wolf. It is a poem about the necessity of choosing that somehow, like its author, never makes a choice itself—that instead repeatedly returns us to the same enigmatic, leaf-shadowed crossroads.”

Regardless of how we read this poem, I hope you see my point.  Don’t always believe everything one might think about such, whether a poem, Scripture verse, political policy, theological framework, philosophy, people we seem to have not much in common with, or what-have-you, when it comes to the conventional wisdom in each area.  By the same token, deeper and closer readings may also hold a place for the conventional reading, but show them as wanting or superficial—something to notice but pass over.

Much of my journey out of the FG world has been about learning to live within that tension, that paradox.  And I’m okay with that.


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