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[Kim Seong-kon] Two roads diverged: Which road should we choose?

Nov. 3, 2021 - 05:30 By Kim Seong-kon
Sometimes we wonder: “What if I took the other path? What would happen, then?” You cannot know the outcome of such a choice, and yet what is certain is that your life would turn out very different. For example, what would happen if you married another person, majored in a different field, or chose another occupation? Your life would be completely different from now.

In our lives, we encounter numerous occasions in which we find ourselves at “two roads diverged.” The road we choose will determine our destiny forever. For better or for worse, we should accept the consequences because we chose “this” road. The same thing goes for a country, too. Depending on the political leader’s choice, a country’s future would be either prosperous or bleak. Yet the people should accept this because they elected the leader by casting a vote for him.

In his celebrated poem, “The Road Not Taken,” poet Robert Frost writes, “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.” After hesitation, the poet chooses one of the two roads: “Then I took the other, as just as fair/ And having perhaps the better claim/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear.” He knows that once he chooses one, he cannot come back for another. Thus, he concludes, “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence/ Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I-/ I took the one less traveled by/ And that has made all the difference.”

Frost attended Dartmouth College before he transferred to Harvard. Later, he returned to Dartmouth to teach. On the Dartmouth campus, there is a bronze statue of Frost writing a poem. Dartmouth is located in Hanover, New Hampshire. In Hanover and nearby Lebanon, there are so many trails where “two roads diverge in a yellow wood.” Perhaps one of those diverged roads inspired the poet to write the celebrated poem, which tells us that we have to choose at every critical moment of our lives and whatever we choose will make all the difference.

Whenever I visit the statue of Frost on the Dartmouth campus, I sit next to him and silently converse with the great poet about choosing the right path when there are two roads diverged in front of us. The wise poet whispers to me that whichever we choose, we should accept our destiny. In fact, we could never know which one was better or what would happen if we chose the other path. That is life.

Frost also silently tells me that if a country chooses the wrong road, especially in times of crisis, it will be fatal to its people who then have to suffer the consequences. Indeed, we have witnessed the falls of once affluent, advanced countries because they chose the wrong path. When a country chooses the wrong road, it is much worse and more severe than an individual’s wrong choice because so many innocent people become victims. In the case of an individual, his wrong choice would be his personal tragedy. As for a country, however, its wrong choice would result in the entire population’s collective catastrophe.

Currently, South Korea is caught in the crossfire between two big countries colliding over warring hegemonies.

Indeed, we are now at “two roads diverged” where we must choose a path to proceed. Some politicians argue that we do not need to choose between the two. The harsh reality, however, is we “have to choose” because we cannot possibly take both roads. If our politicians choose the right path, we will prosper. If they choose the wrong one, we will be doomed.

Next spring, the Korean people will choose their new president. If we choose the right candidate, our future will be bright. If we choose the wrong person, however, our future will be grim. In that sense, we are now facing “two roads diverged.” We have to choose either the left road or the right road and should take the consequences. We should realize that our choice would determine our fate forever. Regrettably, there is no turning back.

Standing before “two roads diverged,” we have to choose discreetly. As a foreign intellectual recently pointed out, it would be egregious if we South Koreans could not find a decent candidate and are forced to choose the one who is “less unfit or less damaging” than the others. Still, however, we have to choose one anyway. Once we make our decision, we can never come back to take another road, even though we belatedly realize we have chosen the wrong path. We have only one chance to make the right decision.

Years later, we will recollect March 2022 with a sigh and realize that our choice “has made all the difference.”

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.