Leveling Up

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Robert Frost is one of my favorite poets.

I realize that a typical reader primarily thinks of Frost’s poetry in one of two examples: “that poem about the guy who stopped his horse in the woods during a snowstorm for no real reason, but he has miles to go before he can sleep, and I guess he eventually gets there?” and “that poem about life has two roads and you pick one that nobody else is on because that’s better in the end.”

Yes, we’re talking about that Frost.  You should read more of him.  (If you had me for American Lit, you’d better also be thinking of him as the guy who wrote “the poem about the couple having a fight after their baby died” and “that poem about fences and neighbors.”)

However, in a move that is sure to ding my English teacher street cred, I’m going to settle into a line from “Road Not Taken.”   Despite the poem’s almost nauseating status as an American favorite, I love the simplicity of its language wrapped around a thought worth thinking.

“And sorry I could not travel both / and be one traveler” 

“Yet knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back.”

The laws of time and space oppose our attempts to write a multiverse edition of our biography. Choosing one pathway closes off many others, and the “what if?”s of life and autobiography enter a realm that only the foolish dare explore.

Random fact: Randall Thompson (a composer) set a bunch of Frost pieces to music. So if you prefer your poetry as song….

Ever played an RPG?

No, not rocket propelled grenade… though I think it would be fun to take one of those out for a spin.

A role playing game.  You know — Final Fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons (tabletop or online), World of Warcraft, Skyim, Fable, Mass Effect.  You run about usually somewhat in charge of your virtual life, kicking up dust and fighting people/things ….unless you’re one of those crafter people who have to figure out every alchemy skill, thus requiring a lot of flower-picking in The Elder Scrolls.  *raises hand sheepishly*

These games offer amazing opportunities for interactive story creation — your power as player trumps the ability of a passive reader or watcher as your choices (and failures) affect the outcome of the tale.

Oh wait, that sounds kind of like life.   [Yes.  Yes it does. If life had big-ass swords and dragons.  Or big guns and aliens.]

And what’s an RPG without a skill tree to guide your character’s development? [Aside: Check out some amazing skill tree art.]

Since I’m playing Mass Effect 3 (again) right now (saying goodbye to one of the best story cycles I’ve ever encountered), here’s the ME3 skill tree:

So many choices. Except who uses frag grenades?
So many choices. Except who uses frag grenades?

Those binary choices in the later part of the game (right-hand side of the image) start to feel weighty. You can just tell – that imperceptible gut feeling housed in your belly and honed by  years of RPG experience – that the story is racing up its Freytag’s pyramid toward the crisis point, that moment where as a game player you cross The Point of No Return toward The Final Battle(s).

And if you didn’t make the right picks along the way, level up a few key skills, those final boss battles will lead you only to controller-hurling frustration.

So choose carefully, player. You don’t want to backtrack several hours of play just to make the game winnable.

Ecclesiastes is an unusual book. A lot of people claim to like it but really they don’t know what to do with it.  Vanity and emptiness and all that.

“Isn’t that the book where Solomon complains he’s too rich, too sexed, too married, too well-fed, and too likely to die?”  Well, um, you’ve got a bit of it.

Everything ends. Nothing lasts – nothing our hands can touch.

God put that gaping infinite maw into the very core of our hearts so we cannot forget that this life isn’t all there is. It can’t be. And that puts a lot of things into perspective. For example, the Preacher notes a couple times that it’s good for a man (or woman) to eat his food, drink his wine, and enjoy his work.  Not in a “there’s nothing else!” reckless abandon way, but in a “this is all passing away too so let’s not get really uptight about dying with the most toys” sense.

There’s an interesting contrast at the end of chapter 11 heading into chapter 12. Many folks have heard 12:1, where Solomon warns young people to “remember their Creator” when they’re young, not wait till they’re old and decrepit and creaky to regret  all the stupidity they wasted their lives on.

But there’s something pretty cool if you back up a bit into chapter 11 to catch the whole context. Solomon tells young people to walk in the ways of their heart, in the sight of their eyes — under the realization that God will call that to account too. Go. Live. Stop looking back over your shoulder.

What gives youth its cheer?  Is it the spry body, the slim figure, the glow of young pores?

No.  It’s the choices.

What Frost understood, what RPG tech trees illustrate better than I’d realized, is that youth offers choice.  Rowdy, intoxicating freedom to muck it all up.

Do I become a doctor or a teacher?  A librarian or a marketer?  Do I pour more energy into learning the piano or branch out into graphic design? What about that quiet dream of doing some stage work now and then?

Master’s degree? More than one? Graduate school?

Kids now or have kids later?

Ecclesiastes says, “Follow your heart” — his way of saying, Look at what you’re wired to do; follow the paths your feet find comfortable. Stop worrying about it…. But remember – you’ll give account for why you “took the one less traveled by.”  Or decided the beaten path was good enough.

I’ve gotten to the age where I’ve stopped telling you how old I am. 🙂

My tech tree is getting into the mid-game stage where I can’t just pop skill points like candy to open up new pathways. This train is chugging down a particular pathway, and it would cost a lot of fuel and time and energy to change its course.

I’m tempted – I really am – by the “what if” questions that prod me to consider how life would be now if I had gone elsewhere to college, had studied something else, had chosen to work in some other field.

But I appreciate the stability of  understanding where I fit. Of owning my own calling, mistakes and all, and setting eyes on goals that only now begin to come into focus.


  1. ….and unlike a video game, I don’t get to replay the game with my character leveled up. lol.
    it’d be nice if we got to redo parts of life using the wisdom we gained by messing it up the first time. 🙂


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