The Road Taken

March 26, is an odd confluence of things. First, Robert Frost, the American poet, was born in 1874. 44 years prior, Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, and then in 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult in California decided to commit mass suicide to catch a ride on a UFO. So a little background, Cliffs Notes style (those were little yellow books that summarized other books before you know, the internet, millennials. sheesh) . Anyway Smith was convinced that the book had been inscribed on golden plates, written by latter day prophets that had lived in North America. At 17, an angel revealed them to him, asked him translate them into English, which he did, and essentially created something of a North American version of the Bible. A companion if you will, to the good book.

Smith then set out to build a New Jerusalem in America, setting up his church in Missouri and then Illinois, before being murdered in 1844. Seems locals did not care for these new “saints”.

Brigham Young took up the leadership and moved the church out West, finally settling in what is present day Nebraska. And everyone got multiple wives. Yay!

Then we have Heaven’s Gate, a cult founded 1974 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group dead in a mass suicide.

They had put on track suits and new Nike shoes, drank phenobarbital mixed with apple juice and vodka, put a five dollar bill in their pockets, and three quarters, then tied bags over their heads and lay down to catch their cosmic Uber. That ride being an alien spacecraft following the Hale-Bopp comet that was swinging close to Earth.

What in the world?

Then you have Frost’s poem.

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, as 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 kept 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 sigh
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.[

What is it that makes people choose a path? Frost’s poem does not lay out certitude that the choice was correct. It is full of “well maybe”. But it has come to be regarded as a representation of making a bold choice, to go THAT WAY, when the truth is most of us look back on paths with a twinge of regret, or at least a wondering “what if?”

The Mormons that followed Smith and Young chose a path, that most of the rest of puritan America was not down with. Some found them to be heretics, criminals, abhorrent, resulting in the murder of their leader(s), driving them west. And in those moments so many paths were being chosen. Chosen to murder, chosen to follow a man who claimed angels gave him the text of modern prophets carved into gold, chosen to enter into polygamy (at the time), chosen to walk thousands of miles to Utah, chosen to say yes this is our new home.

And the 39 people in the cult, choosing to believe an alien craft was coming to pick them up, choosing the path of suicide. You have to wonder, as the phenobarbital and plastic bags were doing their grim work if a few of them said “wait wait”, wishing to chose a different path.

I would suspect, however, for people like Smith and Applewhite, the leaders if you will, were committed to the path. Very committed. There would be no looking back, wondering about a different choice.

And this is not to compare the LDS with a cult, although some people might make that joke. That is not my point. My thought is simply on the idea of CHOOSING a path.

For most of us, the decisions we make are a bit less clear, less certain, done with more hope than certainty. We hope we chose wisely, but man I really wanted to be a fighter pilot. I think.

And I suppose the bigger point here is in not letting others choose for us. Be it a religion or a cult, or a marriage or a march or a suicide pact, or anything. Self-determination is the goal. Really that reaches into all aspects of our lives, from gender to race to social class. The idea that we are in charge of our own decisions, that we can see clearly two paths and both don’t just lay in leaves no step had trodden black, but are actually real choices, choices we have ownership of.

Sadly our world is littered with false choices, and paths that become mazes. The power of independent, reasoned thought is the counter to all that, even within the politics that seems to be tearing our populace to bits, forcing people to take sides, even convincing you that YOU must choose.

Maybe Frost liked the idea of just lingering at the crossroads a bit longer. I think I do to. Just a second longer please. I’m not ready to go the alien spacecraft, or Utah, yet.