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Editor at ReformerMag, Writing on Governance, Institution, and Liberalism.

The road taken is all there is

Why romanticizing experiences hurts us

We all like to think that we are the protagonists in the world around us, the heroes in our own life movie. This feeling, more than anything, stems out of a rationalization of ignorance.

As individuals, the only way of interpreting our world is through our subjective mind. This subjectivity makes it impossible to see anyone else but ourselves as a complete person. It restricts us from seeing into other people like we see into ourselves (irrespective of how superficially so). As such, it is not that we are the central characters in our lives, but that we are the only characters we can be aware of; thus, making it seem as if we are the protagonists.

The central actor in this misdiagnosis comes with the fact that we can only be aware of our own agency. Since we can only be aware of our own sense of choice, everyone else is relegated to a secondary character in our controlled and self-designed life.

This viewpoint profoundly changes the way we perceive our interactions with people around us. It suggests that our interaction with the world happens in a very ego centered way, and will always happen in such a way. It suggests that we can never truly “know” someone, in both the platonic and romantic sense of the word, and we will always see others through our subjective interpretations, interpretations which are based on our biases, hopes, and ideas of our selves.

It’s easy to interpret the above statements as representative of a schism between the subjective (our own) world and the objective (outside) world; but when it comes to interpersonal relationships that formula cannot apply. It can apply to our relationship with the natural world aka science, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships we are referring to a relationship between two subjective actors who both have their own biases, hopes, and ideas of themselves and see the other as a secondary character. Note: It’s important here to not confuse the term secondary as a unit of less importance, a better way to think of it is as a character that fits into the larger subjective self-centred narrative.

We know then that combatting the subjective-objective schism happens through a better understanding of the natural world. How then does one combat the subjective-subjective schism?—the relationship between two subjective actors.

Retrospective imposition

The illusion we have of us as the central characters of life means our interpretation of the world seeks to maintain the hegemony of that illusion. As a result, our interpretations become egotistical and even irrational. As we are all experiencing this egotistical centricity, these irrationalities manifest themselves in our popular culture and interpretations. We find that we can all relate to any form of statement or analysis that puts us at the center no matter how true their applicability they are to our character, they resonate on the base level of positioning us in the center – the most relatable characteristic of all. This is how horoscopes, “inspirational” quotes and overarching myths and stories about common experiences gain popularity. They focus on a sense of agency that we believe we have or place us in the center as the sole experiencer.

A great place to observe this in closer detail is in the massively misinterpreted Robert Frosts poem, The Road Not Taken. The last stanza of the poem, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference” is known by many and is interpreted as a self affirming statement of taking “the road less traveled” or going against the crowd. Our interpretation of the poem places at its center the idea of “choice” and “agency” a conscious choice of taking the road less taken.

This is something that frustrated Frost as a quick reading of the rest of the poem would show us that the intended theme was not choice, but rather regret, the inability to undo choice, and the loss that comes with the choice you did not make.

Frost was not talking about an inherent value of one road being better than the other, the poem specifically states that his choice was whimsical and even done with the intention, or hope, of coming back for the second “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”. With this statement, Frost is acknowledging the linear progress of time and that any and every choice we make rules out an infinite possibility of other choices we could have made, and not that there are any inherently better choices.

So why is it that of the entire poem, only the last two verses stuck with us? Well, it is because it reinforces the hegemonic perspective of us being the heroes of our story. But even if the poem was focusing on the concept of choice and agency and going against the grain, it remains horribly irrational.

Our current interpretation of the poem not only suggests that our choice has made all the difference, but that it has made a better difference, that it was the better choice. It is self-affirming as it validates our choice as being the better one for making all the difference. But what is this difference between?

In its popular interpretation, it is the difference between the outcome of the taking the “road usually taken” (the road others have taken) and the outcome of taking the road not usually taken (the road we have chosen to take). We are comparing ourselves with others. But as we have discussed at the beginning of the piece it is an impossibility to have perfect knowledge of the experience of others, so this interpretation is irrational, and all it does is further romanticize and acknowledge the secondary nature that everyone else occupies in our life. It places us as the main character, the hero, a position that reaffirms our subjective interpretation as the only and best one. A rationalization that is completely irrational, but in this poem, we find, or rather we impose on it, evidence for it.

The other interpretation would be that this is a personal difference, that “and that has made all the difference” is an assessment of our own personal development for taking the road not taken as opposed to the road taken. But how can we ever be aware of the difference between the road we took and the road we didn’t take? We can’t. This analysis then is nothing but yet another irrational attempt at rationalizing why we make the choices we make - because they made all the difference.

Yet any road we take will make “all the difference” the difference between a past and present self. The difference between the person before the road and the person after the road. So where does this need to rank the different outcomes come from? Besides serving the self-centered narrative it is also to save us from the existential anguish of trying to process all the other “roads” or choices we could have taken, the existential anguish that Robert Frost in the two lines that precede his conclusion “I shall be telling this [be telling of this choice] with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence”. By rationalising and ranking our choices, we get to avoid the potential realization that our choices are random and their outcomes are well beyond anything we might control.

Pre-planned fantasies

Our interpretation of Robert Frost’s poem shows that we as humans have a propensity of retroactively imposing interpretations on events in our life so we can maintain a mental image of us as heroes, as people with agency. This exploration sheds some light on the way we interpret the subjective within us. Yet, there is another irrationality we follow to manage the subjectivity within others; heuristics that help us cope with our subjective-subjective relationships.

These heuristics can also be found in our popular interpretation of ideas like love and humanity. These “meta” ideas arise by trying to impose a uniformity on common experiences.

As opposed to our previous example where we sought to differentiate ourselves from one another, these outputs of subjective-subjective relationships are built on things we all experience, as a result of those relationships and no in spite of them.

Love is something we all experience, or hope to, and is built on that relationship between two subjective individuals. Humanity is also built on some kind of baseline commonality we all have as individual humans. These ideas are expressed in our popular culture through art, music, film, and other media of shared consumption. They become part of our collective consciousness, and in doing so pose a massive danger to the way we interpret them once we experience them first hand.

Unlike in our last example where we retroactively impose our interpretation on something we’ve experienced, our “standardization” of common experiences leads us to pre-impose this perceived uniformity onto how our subjective-subjective relationships should be managed. In more direct terms, they lead to fantasies on what those relationships ought to be or look like.

This, again, reinforces our sense of agency, but more dangerously, and in this context, it reinforces our agency over another person. It emphasises our self-centered subjective interpretation of a uniform meta-interpretation of common experiences over the reality of the subjective-subjective relationship. In short, we use our fantasy (our interpretation of how a meta-interpretation will apply to us) to manage our relationship with others as opposed of the reality and immediacy of that relationship itself.

To explore how this plays out let us take the example of falling in love. Our first exposure to love is not through the experience of love, it is to the abstract concept of love. It is based on this abstract that we assess whether we are or are not in love in a relationship.

When a friend asks us, are you in love? We have an abstract notion of what that friend is referring to. But this abstract is not absolute, we do not take it as it is, we add our own interpretation to it. Love is different from person to person. This then opens the gate for a serious danger in the budding stages of a relationship, do they love you back?

Here we have the clash of the subjective in action. Ones subjective interpretation of love is different than the other and the risk of proclaiming it prematurely has the perceived threat of shattering the entire arrangement! This is an intuitive understanding of the radicalness of subjectivity that we dismiss as superficial, but that is because we consider it as an exercise of risk minimalization in a specific (isolated) instance and not as a measure of ALL interpersonal relationships.

Going back to our example, this deviation between the threshold for love is not where the inherent dangers of the relationship lays. It comes when there is an attempt at preserving the subjective fantasy of what love, in action, ought to be. For to proclaim love is simply an acknowledgment of passing a threshold in the intensity of a relationship, but as popular culture would rightly note, being IN love has to do with the sustainability of that state – its historical development.

In this context, many of us dismiss radical subjective differences and a power dynamic emerges. We measure the relationship based on what we think the relationship should be, and in doing so, we also seek to manipulate it to fit that definition, with no regard if this interpretation matches the other persons interpretation. We remain at the centre of the relationship and begin to see our abandonments of this fantasy as concessions, and when the reality of our relationship deviates too greatly from our image, we cry incompatibility – we are shocked that our image of love is not being respected/paralleled.

So far then, we have three versions of love: an abstract universal interpretation, our interpretation of that abstract universal interpretation, and our partner's interpretation of that abstract universal interpretation. And the power struggle in the relationship is between our own interpretation, and our partner's interpretation. To further the confusion, have we not been “in love” more than once, in those situations it is almost certain that the different relationships brought with them their own sets of situations, personalities, circumstances and overall variables. Was the first love the same as the second? Probably not, yet they were both love.

The point here then is that our abstract interpretations of love do us more harm than good. They force us to conform ourselves and another person to a mere fantasy when all evidence points to the mailability of the idea. Why then do we do this?

Here we go back to our obsession with being the protagonist of our life and the secondary nature of others in our life. Seeing ourselves as the protagonist perpetuates our interpretations as the only way. Love is but one example of how these fantasies impact our relationships with others, but the same can be said of any meta-interpretation of common subjective experiences, humanity, good, bad etc.

It might be tempting with this to ask, well, does love even exist? The answer would be yes, but it does not exist as an objective Love (with capital L) it exists as love, a subjective and changing interaction to be negotiated between two people (or more - who am I to set limitations?).

This means that the radicalness of subjective difference is not something that should just come up at the threshold of events (where whether or not we are in love is being determined and the mutuality of this event) but should be ever present in any inter-personal relationship. That means the understanding that both people have different interpretations, being open about these interpretations, and more importantly, removing fantasized pre-conceptions.

This breaks down the power structure of relationships as exchanges between a main actor and a secondary actor and breaks down the concept of exchange replacing it with mutuality and divergence, to be negotiated as independent actors.

Subjectivity and the two worlds

Our subjective perception is faulty at many levels and causes us to adopt heuristics that reinforce us as main actors to help us avoid dealing with existential realities. It simplifies our world and acts to keep it as such. In the long run, this creates nothing but a romanticized view of ourselves and disempowers us by propagating irrational assessments.

On an individual level, it masks the difficulties of making choices and leads to romanticized notions of right irrespective of outcome. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, our pre-conceived fantasies get in the way of accepting the other as their own, and creates larger schisms between people than needs to be by holding these fantasies as our own to mold others to.

We will never be able to achieve a state where we rid of ourselves of these illusions of protagonism. But re-assessing our position can come with a release from holding ourselves to fantasies that are not of our own choosing, and from the need of making sense of events and the results of our choices. It liberates us from concepts of what out to be or what was and grounds us in the reality that is.

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