Long ago I had read a poem by Robert Frost, about having to make a choice between two roads. The poet chooses the road less trodden. He believes that this choice made him a different person altogether.

The road less trodden is essentially an unknown path, a path which is full of unfamiliar turns and obstacles. If we decide to take that road, we have to walk unprepared.

Since evolution, as a species we seek familiarity. We prefer to be in an environment that is known. It gives us a feeling of comfort and safety. Being in a situation that is ambiguous makes us anxious, often because we are unsure of what to expect. Therefore we choose roads well trodden, because we know what to expect and how to deal with it.

What happens then, when we are suddenly forced to choose a road we have no clue about? When the road that we were familiar with, is no longer an option? Do we sit back and wait for our familiar choice to be available again or do we risk going down the less traveled road?

Unfamiliarity of a situation causes anxiety. However, just because a situation makes us anxious, it does not have to be a bad one. Remember going to school or college on the first day. We all were nervous and anxious. Everything around us was unfamiliar, the building, the people, the environment and even the routine. Don’t we look back on these days as the best part of our lives? Isn’t that why school and college farewells are tearful? What would have happened if we had quit then because things were not familiar?

The greatest asset available to us as human species is our ability to adapt to our surroundings. This is what sets us apart from other animals. Other animals find it difficult to survive in conditions which are different from their habitat. We as humans however, since the beginning have used these very unfamiliar conditions as a basis of our greatest inventions. Yet we fear trying new things and being in unfamiliar settings.

The human brain is a repertoire of millions of tiny experiences, some experienced, some learnt, others observed. We store in detail whatever passes by us to use it when the need arises. Sometimes unknown to us, the brain has stored an experience which could help us deal with an unfamiliar situation. Perhaps the experience of another, a movie that we watched or a story that we read could have an answer. Haven’t we all been in a situation where we just know the right thing to say or do? If we don’t even face the unexpected situation, what is the use of having such a treasure? It would be like having millions in the bank and never even using a single paisa.

I remember a girl whose friend has lost her father. The girl wanted to comfort her friend but was afraid to meet her because she had never been in such a situation before. She couldn’t possibly know what to do or say. It was possibly best to avoid her friend till she was better and let someone else who was more experienced handle the situation.

So who were those people who were more experienced to handle the situation? Were they born with a manual of human behaviour? Or did they learn what to do by going to such unfamiliar situations? Did they know what to do, because they took different paths and added to their treasury of knowledge?

The girl did go meet her friend and knew exactly how to comfort her because no one was as familiar with the heart of her best friend as she was.

Imagine never doing something new in life. Where would we be if we never tasted any other ice cream flavour than vanilla? Or we went to the same place for vacation every single year? These were simple decisions to try something unfamiliar and look how enjoyable they became.

An unfamiliar path is not all that bad if we stay long enough. By and by, we will find things in it, that remind us of something familiar that provides comfort. As we walk along we will discover new things that we fall in love with. Sometimes we may even discover something which becomes our new favourite, something which we probably like more than the old comfortable one. Often we will overcome a particularly difficult part, feeling like a new person altogether.

A young man who moved to a new and unfamiliar country discovered the pride of taking care of himself. A young couple living away from their parents learnt to work together to make a decent meal. A woman who took a solo trip to the mountains discovered the joy of her own company. A cricket captain who risked the tried and tested strategy won the world cup for his country. An actor who took up unconventional roles became a legend.

Life was never about taking a familiar path. It is about adding to the path as we move along. It is about creating bridges over rivers and tunnels through mountains. It is about getting lost and discovering a new continent. It is learning to make fire and finding ways to put the fire out too. It is not about comfortable living but about finding comfort in living.

None of us came equipped with a GPS to deal with the path of life but all of us came with the ability to create magic. The charm of magic is only because it is unfamiliar and unknown.

Dr. Gauri Nadkarni Choudhary
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