What if? Just two words and yet they contain whole worlds upon worlds within. I recently read an intriguing book by Andrew Miller entitled: On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of our Unled Lives.* Miller, an author and professor of literature, explores the concept of roads not taken, choices not made, in poetry, novels, film, and art. My reading time is almost exclusively job related, because it’s what fascinates me, and because I’m driven to improve professionally. This was a beautiful foray into different perspectives on what it is to be human. It reminded me of how important it is to read fiction.
Virginia Woolf, a complex and supremely talented writer, puts it beautifully in The Waves:
“We saw for a moment laid out among us the body of the complete human being whom we have failed to be, but at the same time cannot forget. All that we might have been we saw; all that we had missed, and we grudged for a moment the other’s claim, as children when the cake is cut, the one cake, the only cake, watch their slice diminishing.”
Why do we wonder so much about the lives we didn’t live? The people we didn’t become? There is regret, resentment, grief, curiosity, sadness, and longing. One of my favorite quotes is from a song from my days in Spain.
Joaquín Sabina sings in his song “Con La Frente Marchita” with the following verse: “No hay nostalgia peor que añorar lo que nunca, jamás, sucedió.” Some of the poetry is lost in translation, but it means there is no worse nostalgia than the longing for what never, ever happened. Do you recognize the feeling?
Disjointed Thoughts, Unlived Lives
Here are some musings upon reading Miller’s book… I hope the paragraphs do not feel too disjointed. Consider it a journey down multiple paths.
There are an infinite number of lives we are not leading, why do we fixate on one? As if we could know that one particular choice, a few minutes of action or inaction, would have made today the way we want it to be?
We all know that we have one life and our mortality sometimes shapes our decisions and our view of life. Miller suggests that more than our mortality, it’s our singularity that shapes our experiences. There is only one of us. What makes us who we are? Are we who we are because of who we aren’t?
A Task of Childhood
Part of normal development for children is to explore and establish who they are. They do this in part by learning who they aren’t, starting with their parents or caregivers. We call this “differentiation” in psychology. It’s also known as the terrible twos, or as teenage rebellion. All those no’s, and doing the opposite of what the parents say, is part of the path of establishing a solid, recognizable Self. Perhaps our internal comparisons with our unlived selves does or can serve the same purpose – strengthen our sense of who we are. We often look with more regret and longing, but can we look with a reminder to connect with who we are?
With the passing of time, we see we’ve made choices upon choices, all of which have narrowed down options. The older we get, the more we see fewer options in front of us, the more we stew over those moments behind us. I suppose that’s part of the fuel of a “midlife crisis.”
We actually aren’t like narrators of novels, who do know the future, who can see the reverberations of a moment in time. Looking back with regret we assume a knowledge we did not and could not have had. Only a narrator, or a god, can know someone’s full potential, the infinite iterations a life can take, we mere humans can only do the best we can in each moment.
Regret is a Luxury
Miller introduces me to an interesting idea, “Regret is a luxury given to those born to choice and chance.” Centuries ago lives were more directed by circumstances, with fewer choices one can imagine less regret over unled lives. Miller asserts that market capitalism has been the driving factor in the more modern experience of pondering the path not taken.
Miller says, “the main engine driving this modern experience has no doubt been market capitalism, with its isolation of individuals and its accelerating generation of choices and chances, molding behavior in ever-increasing ways… lives have been nursed by an economic system that isolates us and urges us to calculate opportunities and maximize their effects. The elevation of choice as an absolute good, the experience of chance as a strange affront, the increasing number of exciting, stultifying decisions we must make, the review of the past to improve future outcomes: they all feed the people we’re not.”
Wow! It’s so important to look behind the apparently fundamental questions we are asking. To ponder over the loss of an unled life implies choice and agency, not something all humans have – even in present times. There is indeed an aspect of regret that is a luxury.
Meaning and Purpose
The story of our life gives it meaning. We need meaning, purpose, more than we need happiness, which is a fleeting emotional experience. Partly, our meaning comes through our unique experience, our uniquely led life. Meaning is not linear, our lives are greater than the cause and effect of a string of events. How are we establishing meaning for our life?
Pondering unlived lives adds drama and intrigue. Our minds wander through plot twists, looping through time. The what ifs carry a feeling of suspense, a certain pained thrill. We gather meaning through comparison, ourselves to others, ourselves to our selves that led, or would have led different lives. This is our attachment to our singularity.
When we spend our time wrapped up in an unled life, are we longing for an exciting past, or just a different one? Are we longing for a different present? Ultimately, do we want that unled past or do we simply want freedom from the burning question, did I choose ok? Comparing our self to our unlived self, are we asking: could I have been better? Is the question: am I good enough? Am I enough of me? Is this version ok? Fundamentally, are we seeking a reassuring answer to: Am I enough?
Miller doesn’t speak of it, but one of my all time favorite movies is “The Dead Poet’s Society.” It is well worth your time to see it, or see it again! Robin Williams is a high school teacher trying to engage his students in their lives. He takes them to a photo of alumni of their private boys school, boys who grew to men and who are now long gone. He says,
“You see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe… hear it? Carpe… carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Maybe the self we see when we look to our unled life can serve as a messenger, a reminder to live in the present. Perhaps we can hear the whisper to seize the day, to live our one precious life in this fleeting moment, to live with gusto and with appreciation for what is, and for the one who is living it.
Miller, Andrew H. On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of our Unled Lives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020.