It is dark, damp and there is an eerie silence as Gandalf the Grey leads the fellowship into the Mines of Moria towards the Halls of Durin. Among the countless bends and criss-crossing paths he loses his way.
Gandalf stops at the entrance to two tunnels at a loss. Which way to go?
Must he lead into the blackness on the right or the blackness on the left? They cannot go back. The wizard must make a choice.
After a long time he decides on the one with the least noxious smell. He smiles and the fellowship quests on.
Gandalf was lucky. Not because he managed to choose correctly after using about as much logic as a coin toss, but because he had the choice to make.
It was tremendous good fortune to know that there was a fork in the road. And even though the choice was difficult and required a gamble no more sophisticated than a guess, a choice was made.
The real world can be a challenge too.
Sometimes on the freeway the voice from the satnav in the car tells me to keep right. It insists on me keeping right even though there are no exists or forks in the road. The only choice is to go straight ahead. This is especially disconcerting and feels worse than missing a real exit or a concealed entrance on a country lane.
Being told there is a fork where none exists does your head in.
When my GPS tells me to keep right when there is no right to keep it feels like have relinquished control of both outcome and process for no reason. All I can do is ignore the instruction and proceed with the only option the road offers me.
There are many stories of people who failed to ignore the sultry voice of the satnav and driven into a lake, so I suppose I did make a choice of sorts. I ignored the obvious software error.
All this is about control, that ubiquitous fundamental of the human condition. Gandalf had no idea about the correct route he made the call anyway because he had to. And even though the outcome was out of his control, the process of choosing was his to command. And like all true leaders he made the choice with conviction bringing his companions along with him.
I wonder though how many real and metaphorical forks in the road are taken without any serious choice. How often do we crawl, run or scream through life without thought for the consequences of not taking the left fork?
Clearly this cannot be retrospective. In life the forks are often once only options. Like the fellowship, the journey is forward and missed paths remain so. And just as Gandalf found, many of our own forks are a puzzle without a solution. We simply have no evidence or experience for how to decide.
Perhaps this is the point. It means that we must grasp what we do have, the process of choice. Be thankful for the ability to make a call even when we are not sure it’s the right one.