By Eric Liu
There are always choices I must make every waking hour. Since choosing one would entail losing the other, I am losing all the time no matter what I choose.
But losing is normal — every choice made entails the other un-made. So what matters becomes:
Whether the chosen choice is worth more than the un-chosen one?
I could predict the outcome based on my past, which seems reasonable. Though, like statistics where we only know what things “tend” to be — the z score — instead of knowing what they will become, it’s more sensible to have a statement like “it’s probably true” than “I have no idea.”
Take what the great poet Robert Frost once hypothesized: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”; if there were two roads diverging, or three, even more, taking the one less traveled by, more uncertain, means losing all other options. And if choosing any path necessitates losing the other, going anywhere, even choosing to stay stagnant or turn away from what’s ahead, makes “all the difference.”
As the number of texts in our family chats dwindled, I had no idea how to respond.
To be fair, during my senior year at high school, I was “busy” all the time. I wanted to spend all my waking hours with my friends before I never saw them again. So, when my parents asked, “How are you?” in the chat, I always answered, “Busy,” after a day or two. But when I asked for their responses, the answers came immediately, no matter the time difference. My time available with my parents felt unlimited compared to that with my high school friends, whom I only get to hang out with for three more months.
As I became gradually more “busy” as senior-spring dwindled away day by day, the chat became quieter and quieter.
Eventually, it would keep silent for days.
Yesterday lying on my bed in Alondra, when I asked my parents for my return flight back to Boston, there was no response until a day after.
“Let’s call,” I decided later. I dialed her number and waited for her to answer only for it to go to voicemail. A text message pinged my phone a couple of seconds later.
“I am busy,” my mother responded.
My heart missed a beat as I read that. I wanted to yell, but there wasn’t a reason to do so — the anger would seem from nowhere but from my own excessive reading of the situation.
At that point, two roads diverged:
1. Respond with:
Does tomorrow work?
2. Respond with:
Why are you always busy?
It is probably true that one of them is more sensible than the other, but it did not seem clear to me which one would be.
So I didn’t choose. I stayed silent, leaving my mother’s message un-replied once more.
I guess to stay stagnant or turn away from what’s ahead was the third choice, and that has made all the difference.
I enjoy traveling. When I was learning English, the phonetic succinctness of the word “trip” fascinated me. I loved it more when I explored its definitions.
It is mostly defined as a mini-journey or a journey with a more direct destination. A “business trip” embraces the “short” connotation, for example. What interests me more is the fact that it also describes a mental journey, the state of hallucination or under the influence of psychedelics. People come back a little differently after each “trip.” The word further extends its meaning to illustrate the feeling of profound perplexion.
The western world is obsessed with the notion of trips and journeys. From Homer’s “Odysseus” to poet Walt Whitman’s infamous line “Our fearful trip is done!,” travels brew an exotic dream of self-accomplishment through adventures and dangers. And after the journey, the hero applies their growth to solve the dilemma.
But a trip is never done — the effects of a journey, physical or spiritual, change a person forever. In fact, every encounter — a gust of wind, a book read or a loved one’s departure — initiates a journey, and the person becomes shaped and reshaped constantly from birth to death.
If everything resembles a journey through which a person’s characteristics are formed, does the person who faces the two roads diverging choose their next journey? Or do the pre-existing experiences of the person determine the choice that will be made?
So was it me that responded with:
Why are you always busy?
The answer to the question fascinates me.
When I was in primary school, I loved picking wildflowers on the way home from school. As soon as I arrived, I would trim off the stem, stuff the flowers in an ice-cube mold and freeze them overnight. The next morning, I took them out and appreciated their stunning patterns. I kept them out no longer than five minutes, after which I immediately stored them in a freezer drawer dedicated to flowers only. At the end of my primary school years, the entire drawer was filled with flower-stuffed ice cubes.
And one day I threw all of them away.
Not because my parents asked me to do so, but because of their “un-floweriness.” They did not have fragrances. Their colors were lost over time. Though the patterns were frozen, I couldn’t hold them in my hand and feel the textures of each petal. They were distant and indifferent. Once they were frozen, they ceased to be flowers. They were preserved as ideas of what used to be flowers.
Once the family chat was kept silent, it ceased to be family chats. It was preserved as an idea of a used-to-be family chat.
Does tomorrow work?
Nothing can ever be preserved unchanged — preservation in itself defeats its purpose.
Even the two roads can’t stay unchanged. Had I stayed, the trip would still go on. The surroundings might not change, but I would.
The family chat did not change.
“Let’s call,” my mother said one morning. Then the phone rang.
Though familiar sentences were exchanged, the exchange was everything but familiar.
After we hung up, I lay on my bed. I was a little different after going through the silence — staying stagnant and turning away from what’s ahead, in fact, had made all the difference.
I used to miss my parents. When I was alone at night, I would look out the window and see the bright moon. They would be looking at the same moon, I would have thought. I would have recalled my fifth birthday where my parents held me up in the sky and sang “Happy Birthday” with 20 more family friends. I would have missed my first family vacation to Australia where we took pictures with koala bears. There would have been so many would-haves.
But there was none. The moon was the same moon, and I am not the same.
A trip can never be undone.
And that has made all the difference.
Contact the grind at thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com