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Living the Unlived Life?

Writer Adam Phillips wrote Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life in order to explain why the lives we wished to have, but don’t--and probably won’t—shape how we experience the life we do lead.

But how would he do that, anyway?

I mean, I love the idea of considering how the life I have not led conditions the life I do lead, but I don't really know how to. Twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich said that “decision is a risk rooted in the courage in being free."

Splendid and true. But to make a decision about one thing inevitably rules out many other things.

We all know that: if we choose Career A, we rule out the rest of the possible alphabet of Careers. If we choose Partner B, we give up all others. (Even in serial relationships, we continue to rule out countless possible partners.)

So to make a decision is a courageous act and one we make only because we are free enough to do so. But if we are free, we are also finite. There are only so many experiences we can have.

I remember reading Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” when I was an impressionable eighth-grader:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

I resolved then to take both roads in my life. Somehow. Some way.

And in many ways I did. I seem to have paired things up in my life for much of my life. I have two graduate degrees, two daughters. I’ve had two marriages, two careers. I wanted to make sure that I got things done and to do that I just did things twice. It seemed an effective approach.

Now that’s one kind of strategy, though living one’s life with an eighth-grader’s commitment to going down both roads is kind of humbling to admit.

Nevertheless, even if you can go down both roads, that doesn’t prevent what Frost observes later in the poem, “way leads onto way.”

As Phillips writes, “We may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening…We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.”

Yet within our admittedly finite lives, it may be best not to think of "failure" too harshly. (Or as my daughter put it once, “To be angry at failure is like being pissed at the sun for going down.”)

The life we did not have is no more a failed life than the life we have the chance to live more fully each day.

We can go down an oddly pleasant rabbit hole of pondering our unlived lives.

But every life, well-lived, rules out countless unlived lives. And in the end, these are not real lives. Because our actual lives, unlike our unlived lives, occur not in a vacuum, but with other people and that’s what makes them actual in the first place.

In his poem, British screenwriter Leo Marks summarizes with great succinctness how our lives are never really only “ours” at all, but always also belong to others. And maybe that's where fantasy kneels before actuality: in relationship to one another:

The life that I have

Is all that I have

And the life that I have

Is yours

The love that I have

Of the life that I have

Is yours and yours and yours

A sleep I shall have

A rest I shall have

Yet death will be but a pause

For the peace of my years

In the long green grass

Will be yours and yours

And yours.

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