A Fork in the Road

Fork: an instrument having two or more prongs or tines, for holding, lifting, etc., as an implement for handling food of any of various agricultural tools. The point or part at which a thing, as a river or a road, divides into branches.

All of us have heard, and used, the term, “a fork in the road.”  We use it to give directions. At the fork in the road, stay to your right. The common usage of this term quite often leads to the impression that a fork in the road has only TWO choices: left fork or right fork. But that’s not the case and when we think about the path of our lives, it is imperative that we not limit our thinking in such a way.

Take a look at your dinner fork. Most of them have three or four tines. Pitch forks have five or six. Every fork – with the possible exception of a carving fork – has three or more. Why then, when we discuss roads, do we envision two? I’m going to guess that it’s because when roads have three or more we call it an intersection rather than a fork in the road.

Be that as it may, when we apply this terminology to the direction of our life, it’s imperative that we understand every fork in the road has a minimum of three choices: left, right or back.  Usually, at least in my experience, there are far more choices but my thinking has sometimes been limited by long used terminology that probably shouldn’t be applied.  At any given fork in the road, where the path of life is concerned, recognizing that there are at least three, there are often quite a few more.

Ponder the high school student, preparing to graduate and move on to the next chapter: how many choices does this person have? How many paths lie before him? How many forks are in that road?

Ponder the woman debating whether or not to change her career field. How many choices does she have? Have many paths lie before her? How many forks are in that road?

Now consider: When we think about the path we have followed in our lives, we often look back (especially as we get older) and identify particular decisions we made; decisions that determined our lives in some way. Sometimes, usually at those times when we’re not particularly happy or satisfied with our lives in some way, we look back at our decisions and think, “If I had only done that instead of this.” Using an example from my past, one such decision might be whether to stay in the military and make it a career or get out and pursue civilian life. When talking about a fork in the road and such a momentous decision, “road” hardly seems applicable. HIGHWAY might be a better term. Why? Because that single choice impacts so many follow on choices.

Keep that visual in your mind. That fork in the road decision (stay in or get out of the military) might be a single decision but it either empowers or negates the option of hundreds if not thousands of other decisions. By making a single decision I chose a path (a very wide path at that) that contained all of the potential decisions I would make for the rest of my life.

There are two very important things to realize about any fork in the road:

First, we don’t make all our own choices. We don’t always get to choose which path we will take. There are always surprises – and some of them not so good – that impact the path of life that we travel. Do you disagree? I’ll give you two personal examples: When I was born, to a woman on welfare in the mid-sixties, some state bureaucrat in Allegheny County, Maryland, made the decision to take me from my mother and put me up for adoption via the state’s welfare department. Before I was even born, someone made a decision that severely impacted the path of my life. When I was about three years old, someone else made the decision to deny my original foster parents the ability to adopt me and moved me from one foster home to another. Surely that is also easily identifiable as a decision that had serious implications for the path of my life.  So, first and foremost, it’s important to understand that through the course of our life, we don’t make all of our own path choices. (An adult example would be getting laid off from a job; not your choice, but certainly placing you on a different path.)

Second, just because you left one path doesn’t mean you can’t get back to it, or at least to a similar ending destination. Consider the highway from my example above. Just because I chose to leave the military after my stint of service, doesn’t mean I couldn’t go back. And the highway alliteration still applies. If you’re traveling on a highway and choose a certain exit to pursue a different path of travel, then you travel for a while and realize you took the wrong exit, you can either turn around and go back to the highway you wanted to be on, or you can follow a path of travel that takes you back to that highway with a different reentry point. Now, with life, it’s a very rare occasion that you can reenter a highway – a path of travel – at the same point you exited it. Life moves too fast. Things change around us too quickly. OTHER paths intersect ours and are impacted by our choices as much as we are impacted by others. Too much changes immediately after making a choice, so it’s nearly impossible to get back to that same point in the path of our life – but on rare occasion it happens.

PENTAX Image
PENTAX Image

As I consider all of the above, I’m left thinking that a fork in the road is a vastly inappropriate term to use as we describe or discuss the path of our life. The tree of life may well be more applicable. It has this single base we call a trunk and then branches which have branches which have branches… until eventually you get to the tip of a branch and you’re at the end – but only of the path you just followed to get to that particular tip. You can always go back (life flows both ways in a tree branch, yes?), find a new branch, and journey some more.

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