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Cohen: Letting go of control can make changes liberating

Rebecca Cohen

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At pretty much every graduation I’ve been to, someone at some point has whipped out Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

You know the poem: Two paths, woodland imagery, the speaker picks the one less traveled and it makes “all the difference.”

As platitudes aimed at people wearing mortarboards go, it’s right up there with “Do what you love” and “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

But according to the poet himself, Frost didn’t write “The Road Not Taken” to celebrate the power of personal choice.

He wrote it to poke fun at a friend who had trouble making decisions.

The middle lines of the poem, which don’t usually make it into commencement addresses, give this away: Though Frost’s speaker claims to have chosen the less popular road, he also notes that both are worn “really about the same.”

His “choice” is the equivalent of flipping a coin.

I’ve been thinking about Frost’s poem this week, as I approach the moment when my path will diverge from my college friends.

I’ve been thinking that we don’t get to pick the places where we become ourselves.

I mean this not just in the sense that we can’t choose where we come from or how that place rubs off on us — though as a native of Seattle, where “formalwear” means polarfleece and your one flannel shirt without holes, I remember that truth every time I show up wildly underdressed for a fancy event — but also in the sense that even when we are old enough to choose where we live, we have little to no say in what becomes important to us while we’re there.

I applied to Northwestern with a vision of afternoons spent sprawling on Deering Meadow, discussing philosophy and art with a small circle of friends. At least one of us would probably be wearing tweed elbow patches.

Or maybe I’d take a class in evolutionary biology or join the ultimate Frisbee team, I thought. None of those things happened.

Instead, a friend pressured me into accompanying her to an info session about writing for The Daily.

Four years, hundreds of issues, and a few too many sunrises in the newsroom later, I can’t imagine a version of college in which I didn’t spend most of my waking hours at this paper.

I learned skills at The Daily that, until I got there, I didn’t realize I was missing: how to deal with criticism, how to talk to strangers, how to get Norbucks baristas to give me coffee for free.

And compared to the people I know, I think my vision for my NU experience has shifted relatively little. I didn’t switch my major or find my soulmate or get diagnosed with a mental illness.

Nobody’s life went according to plan.

It’s not that I don’t think the choices we make matter. I’m sure at another university, I might have become a very different person.

But the thing about taking the road that makes “all the difference” is that there is really only one option in this scenario, and it is change.

And looking at the wear on the path or how many leaves have covered it won’t help you determine who you’re going to be when you get to the end of it.

This is scary for me, and maybe for you too. Most of us got into NU because we’re the kind of people who plan ahead, color-code our Google Calendars and make it to both the study session and the pregame scheduled for the same night. We like to be in control.

But it’s also kind of liberating not to be. Whatever choice we make, after all, the road will go on.

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