There is just enough space on the bench for one more. Well almost enough if they all shuffle along a little. Christine hauls her rucksack off, feeling lighter already as she dumps her bag on the floor. She stretches, her back cracks with relief as she rolls her shoulders, life coming back into the muscles.
‘Hi, mind if I take a seat’. Three faces look up at her, a mixture of welcome, curiosity and one with what seems like down right hostility. ‘I won’t stay long but could you shove up a bit, I think the seat is meant to take four’. Bottoms shuffle on the wooden bench and she squeezes in at the end.
‘Phew I needed this’ and as the others settle and readjust, she pulls out her water bottle and takes a deep slurp before looking around. It’s been a long walk to this point, interesting though, lots to see, a real adventure and her fitness levels have improved over time.
‘Well this seems a good spot to put this seat’ she says quietly looking around. The four of them are sat on a junction, a multi junction. The path she came up, the one they all came up she assumes is almost behind the bench, you can just see it out of the corner of your eye. Ahead the track splits and there are a number of choices. Immediately, directly ahead, is a wide reassuring asphalt path which arcs straight and disappears into the distance. To their right and left are a number of paths which split away in different directions. Some have clearly been walked by others, some are barely noticeable, maybe a single set of steps have gone that way.
‘Any idea which way to go from here?’ she asks enthusiastically looking around, her eyes sweeping over her three new companions. Right next to her is a man alternating between opening and shutting a book and lifting a pair of large black binoculars to his face. He takes one more sweep of the vista ahead, his head swivelling through one hundred and eighty degrees.
‘What would you do?’ he says turning towards her. ‘Oh sorry forgot my manners, I’m Bill’. He shuffles book and binoculars around so he can shake her hand. ‘It’s just that it’s says here ‘Look for the long term, build for future success, not just the immediate’. He seems to be reading from a particular page. ‘Here, take a look’. He passes her the glasses which she has to adjust to get into focus, then everything springs up large and bright in front of her. ‘Can you see all the good things just down the main path there and some more just a bit further on, then beyond that it all begins to peter out’? Christine is not sure what she is looking at, maybe they are trees, she’s not sure. The closest seem to have a lot of fruit on if that’s what they are. Further on they have less fruit and in the mid distance the trees look bent, broken and the soil underneath arid.
‘Now look a bit to your left’ and he guides her hand, nudging the glasses across. For a short while it is all distorted then coming into focus is a very large patch of land with saplings growing, spreading right and left across the span of her vision. The soil looks fertile ‘The problem is I can’t see a path to get there, possibly a sheep or cattle track, but not much more’. He’s right, the tarmac path clearly leads straight through the closest trees and on until it disappears into the arid landscape she first looked at. That route is clear. Swinging the binoculars back, he’s right, no path seems to go to where the rich soil seems to glow red in the distance.
“I think I have a decision to make, go for the short term, straight in front of me, or look for a way to a better long term future’. He pulls out a pristine white handkerchief from his pocket and polishes the lenses, flicks through the book one last time, then snaps it shut. With a purposeful nod to them all he starts off down the tarmac road, stepping out in a regular stride. Then after a hundred metres and with a wave back at Christine, he plunges off the path heading towards the fertile field.
‘Good for him, I admire that determination’. A woman pushes herself along the bench filling the space left by Bill. ‘I hate decisions though don’t you. She looks directly at Christine unafraid of eye contact. ‘It means having to make a choice, it’s so hard isn’t it’? She’s waving a piece of paper in front of her. ‘A friend sent me this poem, said it might help me’. Her face crinkles. ‘Help me! Well it did get me started I suppose, it made me move, but now I’m in a right muddle. It says here’ she pauses to find the right sentence ‘Choose the most interesting path, the least travelled path. Which one though I say to myself, Jane which one, they didn’t say there would be loads of choices’. She sighs deeply. In frustration, she screws the sheet into a ball crushing her hands together, then quickly unwraps the crinkled sheet to study the words once again.
‘I love this poem, I love all this inspirational type stuff’. Her face opens up and she beams at Christine. ‘Here you keep this love’ and the worn creased paper changes hands between them and Jane stands up. She ponders all the paths arrayed out in front of her, looking around, seeming to do some sort of metal equation. Then she starts off down a well marked grass path before coming back, pointing at another, shrugging her shoulders and setting off down a less well marked but interesting track which bends away through the fields and towards the woods ahead. Occasionally she stops, looks back, stares at the other paths leading in other directions and then moves on until she disappears from view.
The last person on the bench ignores Christine completely. He’s crunched up in a dark raincoat, even though the day is quite warm, he’s staring at his shoes which are highly polished. Christine considers moving along the bench but senses he needs space.
‘Nice day hey’. Christine leans back looking at the wide spread of countryside ahead of them. Bill, a tiny spec in the distance, seems to be walking back and forth through the saplings. Occasionally the glass in his binoculars flashes in the sunlight. Jane has disappeared into the trees. High in the blue sky above, a Red Kite circles seeking a thermal in the warm air.
‘Choices, choices, there is no choice whatsoever, they’re both talking nonsense’ the voice mumbles out of the folds of the coat. ‘Idiots the pair of them, believing you can take a different path’. He turns and glares at her, his eyes are red rimmed with dark shadows below. ‘See that’. A slender hand is pulled out of a pocket and points at the path behind and one in front of where he is sitting. It seems to run directly under the bench. ‘You’ve got your life patterns, you can move a bit but mostly you go along your tram lines following the stuff your parents or grandparents gave you. I know I’ve trained in this stuff. That woman should have tried a different poem, something more realistic, maybe that one by Philip Larkin ‘They fuc……’. He is cut short as Christine interrupts him.
‘Yes, I know that poem, a bit depressing actually, I prefer optimism and hope myself’. He looks at her, ponders on the comment, before a broad smile breaks out across his tired face.
‘Maybe you’re right’. He takes a moment to reflect. ‘Perhaps a bit of both ideas makes more sense. So, accepting there are patterns, but choice and experience makes a difference. Our patterns are just patterns wherever they come from. Some are good, some are bad, but they help us manage our complex lives. We need them. I was just thinking about my old dad, he had good intentions I think. He worked hard, was never at home, that was probably a family pattern, but he made some good choices too. I think I’m a bit better, I work hard too, but still probably too much, if my marriage is anything to go by’.
He pauses and looks up at the Red Kite, which is hovering closer, focused on something below ignoring them completely. ‘And we’re adults aren’t we, we have to make choices and remake them regularly, that’s how our patterns shift in the long term. I have to choose the next step, the next path to go down’. He takes a deep breath. ‘I’m being a a bit stupid really, I know this stuff, I’ve been through it a few times. Maybe I’m just a bit tired right now and can’t see anything clearly. So, you go right ahead and make your choice, I think I’ll just sit here a while and enjoy the sunshine’.
Christine leans back on the bench and watches the bird swoop down, flash across the ground, then up and away.
’You know I might sit here a while too if that’s okay? I can see two or three options ahead but I’m not sure yet. Would you like some lunch’? She unbuckles the top of her rucksack and begins searching inside. ‘Would you be willing to share some of your choices, the paths you’ve taken while you’ve been working hard’? She knows he will because he’s tapping the end of his nose as he thinks, a smile appearing on his face.
Postscript – One book, Two Poems
The ideas in the first part of the story comes from a book I have just read (thanks Bryan for the recommendation) – The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek (https://simonsinek.com/product/the-infinite-game/). He talks about the need for organisations to move from our current model of short term results, to a broader longer term perspective, where we create sustainability for future generations, rather than just our own. Although the book applies this to business it has the same resonance at a personal level.
The second part of the story pulls on the themes from two well known poems by:
Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken – (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44272/the-road-not-taken)
Peter Larkin – This Be The Verse – (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48419/this-be-the-verse)
Both poems are often quoted in personal and leadership development workshops and are used to stimulate, challenge and inspire.
Some possible reflection questions:
- Are you making good choices? How much are you driven by your patterns? Which of these patterns support you, which ones are potentially sabotaging you?
- Do you need to sit a while as you consider your next choice? Who would you like to chat to about your next step (someone with a different perspective, or at least different patterns). Or do you simply need your own quiet reflection time?
- Are you able to consider both your immediate short term choice and how this fits into the much longer term perspective? If you are in an organisation, are you able to see the long term picture (probably beyond your time there) and therefore what foundations you need to put in place now?