A starving man is wandering along a dusty path when he spots a tiny seed. He falls to his hands and feet and greedily picks it up. Finally, some food! If the man has enough self-control, at this moment he becomes aware of a choice. He can either:

  1. Plant the seed, water it and care for it and grow more food, or
  2. He can eat it and carry on wandering down the path in search of more food. No better off than he was before except for the minuscule speck of nutrition in his stomach.
If the man lacks any real self-control, he behaves much like an animal and automatically defaults to the second option above but is no wiser to the fact that there was a choice at all.

Robert Frost is perhaps best known for his poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. It has been misunderstood and misquoted by many generations of snotty-nosed school-kids forced against their will to study the work in English Language classes the world over. It is best remembered for the last sentences of the final verse which read:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

This part of the poem has been wrested out of context and used by countless orators and teachers to introduce the concept of delayed gratification. Making decisions that cost short-term comfort but which lead to bigger long-term rewards. It becomes clear from reading the rest of the poem that investigating this phenomenon does not appear to be the poet’s intention. Instead, he is merely considering in later life what the consequences of choosing the other path would have been. He does not appear to be sermonising.

Despite the author’s intention, this poem has gathered a patina of interpretation which includes the concept that taking the path ‘less traveled by’ is somehow morally superior and leads to better long-term outcomes. What is this path ‘less traveled by’?

If we ignore the poet’s intention and interpret the poem as an allegory about life choices and deferred or delayed gratification, what does the path ‘less traveled by’ represent? By far the greater majority of people in this world are far more interested in short-term comfort and gain than in long-term investments which may cause short term discomfort. All I need to do to prove this is to point to the rising levels of obesity and lifestyle-related diseases in the first world. There are many, many people who cannot face the discomfort of making positive lifestyle choices that lead to long-term improvements in health and well-being. It’s easy to assume that people are just plain lazy, but we know that it is not that simple. Despair, depression, ignorance and systemic disempowerment play a significant part in robbing many people of the will or know-how to endure suffering and discomfort in return for long-term gain.

So what can be done if you are struggling to make any positive improvements in your life and tend to slide back into comfortable old habits?

I’m afraid that there are no easy answers. It is never going to be easy to willingly make decisions that will lead to short-term personal discomfort. That is the nature of the beast, but the more you apply the principle, the easier the decisions become and the more comfortable you get with bearing short-term discomfort in return for long-term gains. Your mental fortitude improves. Your pain threshold rises. You become comfortable living under discomfort because you are proactively changing your future. For the joy of the future that is set before you, you endure the discomfort, despising the pain.

But I’m jumping the gun here talking about considering life-choices, because many people do not even come to the point where they are aware that there is a choice at all, let alone to the point where they can consider the outcomes of their decisions. Many people just drift along like crewless ships blown by the winds of chance on a sea of uncertainty. Conscious, but only barely so. Out of control, they reel from one disaster to the next like a drunken man or a sleep-walker.

If you are one of these people. If you feel that your life is completely and utterly out of your control, there is no easy way for me to say what I need to say. You won’t like it, but you need to hear it and understand. At the risk of offending you, your perceived lack of control is not real. It is an illusion. There are choices that you are making in your life, whether conscious or unconscious. And one of these choices is the choice to be disempowered. The only way to remedy this situation is to realise that there are many things that are within your control if you choose to take control.

Of course, we are all exposed to events that are outside of our direct control, but there is always something that is under our control. And that is our reaction to these events. Are we going to get knocked off our feet for good or are we going to stand up and take control of what is given to us to control? This is our decision. And there’s more at stake here than you may realize. The future of our race hangs in the balance. Your Maccas fetish, poor health and financial mismanagement is not just affecting you personally. We are all connected. As you fall, we all fall with you.

I’ll follow on here to mention the modern idea that our emotional response is somehow outside of our control. It is a very popular notion today which leads to all kinds of bad behaviour. So many people turn up over and over again in courts around the country for making bad decisions based on a lack of emotional control. I think that there is a perception which has grown in our society that being emotionally out of control is somehow a demonstration of physical or emotional power. Somehow today it seems that if you lose your temper and react to a situation, it is perceived to be a hallmark of a powerful individual. This is absolute nonsense and flies in the face of logic.

There was a very wise person who once wrote that the measure of a man (or woman) is not the size of the emotions that control them, but the size of the emotions that they control. Once again, it comes down to a series of decisions that you make either consciously or unconsciously by default. If you decide that you will control yourself, then you most likely will. If you make no decision on this issue or decide not to control yourself, you most likely won’t control yourself.

There is a life principle of very broad application which can be very succinctly summed up as: “Choose the hard path.”. When you have a choice between two options, one of which is easy to do and leads to short-term fulfillment but zero to minimal positive change and one of which is hard to do but which leads to superior positive change in the long term, choose the hard path. I’ve lived long enough to see the results of choosing the hard and the easy path in my life. I do not have many regrets in my life but when I do, they are invariably as a result of choosing the easier path. I have never regretted choosing the hard path.

​Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the hard path, and that has made all the difference. But these days, it is a lonely path. Won’t you join me? You will not regret this decision.   

Written by SiFu Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia.