On the Road Not Taken

The roses of wisdom are good to see, true to the touch and have a beautiful scent — but they can only be reached on a path of thorns.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

I am fond of telling the story of an American tourist who gets himself hopelessly lost somewhere in the wilds of the west of Ireland. In desperation, he stops to ask an Irishman the way. “If I were you,” the rustic sage replies, “I would not start from here.”

We might not think such advice very helpful and no doubt our lost American tourist found it exasperating and infuriating in equal measure. And yet there is an odd sort of wisdom in the Irishman’s words, at least if we take them metaphorically. With regard to the state of our modern world, we might indeed lament that we are so hopelessly lost that this isn’t a very good place to start. How on earth did we stray so far from the paths of wisdom that we find ourselves in such a God-forsaken place? And yet we have no option but to start looking for the right place from the wrong place in which we find ourselves. Furthermore, we are already moving in the right direction as soon as we know we are lost. There are, after all, none so lost as those who don’t know that they’re lost. And this is the problem we face.

Those on the so-called “left” have no idea they are lost. In spite of the temporary setback of the last election they are convinced that humanity is “progressing” toward a better future because, well, there’s something magical at work, which means that humanity is always ascending from the ignorance of its past to a bright and better future. There might be no God but the Nothing that animates the cosmos is nonetheless benign, guiding the ascent of man with its non-existent hand. The past stinks but the future will be a bed of roses (genetically modified by “progress” so that the roses will have no thorns). Those who have taken this left-fork in the road are now wandering further and further from the true path in pursuit of a mythical future golden age, a utopian Nowhere.

But what of those on the so-called “right”? There’s a certain brand of so-called “conservative” who believes, in spite of the temporary respite of the last election, that humanity is regressing toward a dark and deadly future because, well, there’s something black magical at work, which means that humanity is inexorably descending from a bright and better past to a dark and dismal future. There might be a God in heaven but he’s not as powerful as the devil, which is why we’re all headed for hell. The past smells of roses but the future stinks. Those who have taken this right-fork in the road are, as if by magic, on the same road as those who took the left-fork. They are heading for the same place, though the one on the “right” considers that the path leads to a mythical dark age, and not a golden age, a dystopia, not a utopia. They are both on the same road to Nowhere.

And then there are those on the road not taken, those who have spurned both forks in the road as they would spurn both forks on the serpent’s tongue. They don’t seek the heaven on earth, the utopia of the progressives, knowing all too well that it doesn’t exist and will never exist. Nor do they fear the hell on earth, the dystopia of the prophets of doom, because they know that their hell is the same as the progressives’ heaven. It is Nowhere.

They know that what will be will be very similar to what has been. They know that the future will stink as the past has stunk. They know that sin will stain the future, as it stains the present and has stained the past. They also know that virtue will be the candle which enlightens the future, as it was the candle which enlightened the past and enlightens the present. They are not on the so-called “left” or the so-called “right” because they are convinced that humanity is neither progressing nor regressing but merely playing its part in a story, His Story which we call history, in which the same lessons are taught (and sometimes even learned) like motifs in a great symphony of meaning. They know that the roses of wisdom are good to see, true to the touch, and have a beautiful scent but they also know that they can only be reached on a path of thorns. They know, indeed, that the garland of roses is inseparable from the crown of thorns. This is why those on the road not taken can be found clambering through the brambles of life, seeking the roses amid the thorns. They are found there because they know that the road to Heaven, the only road worth taking, includes the purgatorial path of suffering. They wander from the road to nowhere because they are not lost. And as for the God-forsaken place in which we find ourselves, the only thing we can truly say about it is that it is not God-forsaken.