New Trails, New Thoughts

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

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I found my morning peace running the trails with Juno at Reedy Creek Nature Preserve this morning.  I’ve been in a crunch to grade lots and lots of research papers, and it was nice to move outside in the spring morning sun.

I’ve never run here before, though it’s a scant 15 minutes drive.  As such, I found myself running blind, not sure which trail was always the right one.

Luckily, it’s not so big that I was easily lost.  The vast expanse of twists, turns, and potential trails on which the mind can wander, however, is far more infinite.  And the more I read my students’ research papers, the more I become aware of the multiple paths we are lured to pursue in the desire for some ambiguous self-actualization: meditation will improve your focus, better sleep will improve your health, caring about animal experiments will make you a more moral person.

I find this infinite prism of possibility reflected on my Facebook feed sometimes…so many ideas to explore, so many possible ways to engage myself through different threads: colleagues post ideas to improve my teaching, former students post pictures of their overseas trips, friends post political articles begging me to engage and debate.

Not to mention the galleries upon galleries of cat pics.

At times it can be overwhelming.  There’s only so much of any of us, and if we have the yen to engage our minds, we live in a rich time where there is more stimulus than our elders could’ve ever dreamed.  And when it gets a bit much, the easiest reaction seems to be to completely disengage.

As I turn right right on the Big Oak trail, I can’t deny this is enticing, but not a long-term solution for anyone who lives in the modern world.  So–of course–I think of an ancient philosopher to fit the bill.  Taoist writer Chuang Tzu wrote extensively about the concept of “the pivot.”  Taoists often espouse the idea of moving like water without prejudgement or discernment, a concept that frustrates those of us who consider ourselves goal-oriented people.  The pivot is something of a solution.  It commands that we approach all situations without prejudgement and cultivate the discernment to move in the right direction at the right time.  Like a quick turn on the trail that happens without premeditation, the pivot knows all possibilities and selects the right one for the current situation.

The drawback of this knowledge, of knowing all possibilities, is the mind often lingers on the outcome of choices not made.  Harvard psychologist Barry Schwartz expounds on the painful regret often associated with opportunity costs here.

As I run further into the woods, I reach another intersection, and I chuckle as I think of my 9th grade English teacher, Ms. Morris, who told us the story of how she was in a college class discussing Frost’s “The Road not Taken.”  Full of verve, she said she gave her interpretation of the life-affirming possibilities of taking the right path.  Her professor–grave and older, no doubt–chided her that the poem was about the sigh, the worry about the choice left behind.  Frost has been loosely quoted as saying “Sometimes, a poem about the woods is just a poem about the woods.”  The pivot would say these are all possibilities.  Each one is there for the use at the right moment.

For me, a run in the woods has given me some direction, something to muse on this blog and publish, something better than grading papers, something to do while my broken pinky dries.

And that has made all the difference.

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