Is the unlived life worth examining?

Nothing I know matters more Than what never happened. — John Burnside, 'Hearsay

9780374281113_p0_v1_s260x420I once had a psychoanalyst ask me to write out in detailed form the way I wish my life had gone. I am not sure why he asked me to do that, and at the time I was even less sure.  I do know that I was at once both resistant and energized by his invitation which I ultimately did not accept.  When I think back to my work with this well-meaning analyst,I suppose many of my hours with him had sounded a lot like the following: "If we had only stayed in Seattle and not moved to Los Angeles."; "If only I had been able to stay near Mirjam and Paul( my Nanny and her husband) and not move two states away from them."; "If only I had been allowed to stay at Montessori and not been forced to attend Parochial school." It's funny to think back to that time and see the point my analyst was trying to make. He was, I suppose, trying to get me to see the impact of my unlived life and discover who it was that I longed for and what I imagined those roads not taken would have lead to. I imagine that he thought that I was marred by regrets which is strange as I don't really experience myself as a person who regrets much. But was my analyst onto something? Was my unlived life worth examining?

Adam Phillips', author, psychoanalyst and my latest intellectual crush, has an answer for that. "It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for,are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad."

In his latest book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, Phillips explores the unlived life and how it impacts our lived life. The book jacket offers the following description of Phillips' exploration:

All of us lead two parallel lives: the life we actually live and the one that we wish for and fantasise about. And this life unlived (the one that never actually happens, the one we might be living but for some reason are not) can occupy an extraordinary part of our mental life. We share our lives, in a sense, with the people we have failed to be - and this can become itself the story of our lives: an elegy to needs unmet, desires sacrificed and roads untaken....Adam Phillips demonstrates that there might in fact be much to be said for the unlived life. ...he suggests that in missing out on one experience we always open ourselves to the potential of another, and that in depriving ourselves of the frustration of not getting what we think we want, we would be depriving ourselves of the possibilities of satisfaction.

This is, I imagine, and I imagine my old analyst would agree, is something I know a little about.

There is the me that was an only child who moved from Seattle at three and moved to Los Angeles and whose parents were career focused and not child focused. There is the me who had traumas and dramas mar her childhood. And that me that went on to marry and not have children and become who I am today. But what, I suppose, makes all of the pain of that biographical narrative so much more painful is that I hold in my mind the story of "what should have been" and  " the unlived life that I should have had". That, truth be told, is much the pain of infertility and the resulting grief that lingers today...it is the feeling of missing out and having in my head the alternate life I would be living if I had only had the baby.  I share my life with the Tracey that I have failed to be. There is the me that exists and then there is the me that went to Sarah Lawrence and who is a mother and who has a huge and loving family ( the me that doesnt' exist).

In answering the question of why do we spend so much time imagining another ( or unlived life) Phillip argues that we are by nature frustrated creatures and that is because our expectations and fantasies are more than can possibly be met by the world. He goes onto explain that one of the ways we cope with that frustration is to fantasize about what we need and what is missing. It is Phillips' assertion that fantasizing about what we don't have is not merely an act of compensation but that it gives us insight into what we want to do with our lives. The fantasy gives us information about what we want to do and how to give our selves some sense of satisfaction. Phillips' encourages us to use our fantasy life to seek what is truly available in the world. He goes onto say that by really knowing our frustration that comes at the intersection of lived life and not lived life that gives us a better sense of what we really want, so  it is important to look at that wished for life for clues

A very interesting point that he makes and one that I need to pay special attention to is that the fantasy of the unlived life can make the lived life seem disappointing as there are no boundaries in the fantasy life and there are always boundaries, rules and limitations in the lived life. "reality isn't disappointing, it is just reality."In my unlived life I had that baby and I live in Lake Bluff and I write in my free time when I am not being the best mother I can be. Yes, giving space for that unlived life makes me sad. When I really walk around that life it is both lovely and horrible in the pain that it constilates, but when I really move into that fantasy there is something I wanted psychologically and symbolically, as well as literally,and some of those things can happen and some of those things can't. In the fantasy I am the perfect mother and I have the perfect baby and I am perfectly happy. I know the reality would have been very different and I am perfectly okay with that.

Phillips argues that Capitalistic culture promises to endlessly supply things we want, that if we have a need that Capitalistm promises to produce something that will fill that need( interestingly that in the height of my trying to conceive I used to dream of going to Land of  Nod or Pottery Barn Baby and buying my own perfect baby as well as all the nursery furniture). Phillips makes the case that "the effect of this forced feeding( by Capitalism) is that we never can think about what we might want."

The surprising point that Phillips makes is that frustration is more enlivening than happiness. "I think that our frustration is one of the best things about us....at its best our frustration, for example, can lead us into the knowledge  and the acknowledgment that we need other people, say, and that there is a limit to what other people can give us and we don't have to, as it were, murder them because they are so frustrating....And if frustration were more culturally acceptable...it would be more talked about." We are capable of more satisfaction in our life and that can  looking at our frustration and seeing what is act ually possible.

As much as I love Phillips, and I do, I find him to be a bit of a frustrating read ( and for Phillips that would likely be a compliment) he writes in a free-associative style that leaves one feeling completely unsure of what they just read( and I KNOW that Phillips would love that critique). Let me be absolutely clear,  I am not in this post recommending that you rush out and buy his book ( but you might well enjoy it). What I do hope is that you might feel inclined, after reading this post and some of the scaffolding bones that make up the body of Phillips argument, to examine your unlived life and see what exactly frustrates you about it? What in the frustration offers for potential REAL fulfillment in your REAL life?

I WANTED a baby. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to create a life for myself and for the longed for baby that I didn't have created for me. While I can't create that baby, I can, if I chose, create a life in which I have more opportunities for love and connection and nurturing, which I imagine is at the crux of the desire for a family.  I don't have all the answers about the meaning of my "unlived life" but I do think it is definitely worth exploring further. And I can see already that just in posing the question that there is an opportunity to be somewhat less frustrated, which is strangely a bit frustrating.

"Missing Out" reviewed in the New York Times

Excerpt from "Missing Out"

Radio Interview with Adam Phillips

 L.A. Review of Books on "Missing Out"