Writing in the Slate Book Review, Mark O’Connell ends his review of Adam Phillips’ book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by saying “And so, while reading [the book], I spent a lot of time wondering about the wished-for book in praise of the unlived life, which remains frustratingly and tantalizingly unwritten.”
Apparently Phillips sets out to explain why our unlived lives—those ones we wished to have, but don’t and probably won’t—shape how we experience the life we do lead. If I’m reading the book review correctly, he doesn’t get around to doing that.
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’m not sure I’d be able to understand that. Twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich said that “decision is a risk rooted in the courage in being free,” and I think there is something to that observation. 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 Spouse 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 8th-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.
Now that’s one kind of strategy, though living one’s life with an 8th-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 the other day, “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.
I do think it’s interesting to ponder my unlived lives. (What if I had stayed married to my first husband? What if I had had a third child? What if all my scribbling had made me a famous author?)
Every life, well-lived, rules out countless unlived lives. But those 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.
I think of a small poem with a big message, written by Leo Marks after the death of his girlfriend. In it, he summarizes with great simplicity how our lives are never really only “ours” at all, but always also belong to others:
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
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