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The Road Not Taken & FOMO

Just the other day Don Share posted on Twitter a link to a recording of Robert Frost reading ‘The Road Not Taken’. How wonderful to hear it in the poet’s voice. Here it is on YouTube:

Matthew Hollis, in his 2011 biography of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, tells of Thomas’s distress at this poem, taking it so personally, in fact, that it was the final push that sent him off to war (and his death). This, despite Frost trying to reassure him the poem wasn’t meant as an admonishment for Thomas’s (self-perceived) cowardice or indecision, but rather a very mixed message indeed, full of ironies and what the poet called ‘the fun of the thing’.

Then this morning I open up the latest email from Maria Popova’s excellent Brain Pickings, to read another beautiful essay, this week on the topic of all our roads not taken – In Praise of Missing Out: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the Paradoxical Value of Our Unlived Lives.

In this early internet age of ‘fear of missing out’ – one of the truly troubling aspects of social media – the idea of being haunted by the road not taken, or the lives we might have lived or perhaps we feel we ought to be living, seems extraordinarily relevant.

As Philips puts it, “We have an abiding sense, however obscure and obscured, that the lives we do lead are informed by the lives that escape us,” going on to argue that our ‘wished for’ or fantasy lives, the ones we could have/might have lived, are as much a part of us as our real lives, and as Popova says, “the most ideal of these missed-out-on experiences reveal a great deal about the realest aspects of our lives.”

This is a fascinating read which got me thinking about so many aspects of online behaviour, not just FOMO or how the medium seems to fan the flames of envy, but also the holding power of online communities, fantasy worlds and games. I wrote an academic paper on the subject fifteen years ago entitled ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’ – props to the first person to tell us in the comments what song that line comes from!

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  1. Gene Groves Gene Groves

    Hotel California. Such a poetic lyric.

  2. I am a big fan of Brain Pickings too – though I hadn’t read the post until after I read your post. And then I also read three more reviews of the In Praise book. This last one I read helps to summarize the feeling I am getting about the matter — and the book. The paradoxes of our situation… and that it is fruitful to be aware of it. He seems to go at it all a bit playfully. (Phillips is a new name to me – I see he’s a busy writer.) It makes me think of the “tension between opposites” concept that stopped me in my tracks many years ago when I was reading some Jung stuff. That we can make use is this funny (strange/ha ha) situation we find ourselves in ,,, to write poems (for example) but also I suppose to work at striking some sort of balancing act…. Great post, Robin, Oh yes here’s the link – Anyway…. you’ve got me thinking now… how to make use of some of my “un-lived” but crucial to my life stories…

    • That’s very interesting Elly, and thank you for the link to the Guardian review of Philips’ book, which I shall look at now. I think to confront our ‘unlived’ life/lives is no easy thing but may be an essential part of growing older, or becoming wiser (but does wisdom only come with age? Another topic!) Yes, Brain Pickings is for me probably the best blog out there, it covers so many diverse topics and I always learn from it. Thanks again.

  3. Antony Mair Antony Mair

    Just catching up with things and read your blog post, Robin. Very perceptive and interesting – there’s material here for a dozen more posts, let alone a dozen poems! Also fascinated to hear Robert Frost read – it shows how fashions have changed, doesn’t it? read like that now and the audience would be asleep in two seconds!

  4. Haha! Thanks Antony…I love his delivery, but yes, I suppose a longer poem (or a whole evening) might be a tad soporific!

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Robin Houghton 2021