Thursday, January 14, 2021

#14 / The Unlived Life



“Unled lives are a largely modern preoccupation."... It used to be that, for the most part, people lived the life their parents had, or the one that the fates decreed. Today, we try to chart our own courses. ... Among secular people, the absence of an afterlife raises the stakes. In “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life,” the psychologist Adam Phillips warns that “once the next life—the better life, the fuller life—has to be in this one, we have a considerable task on our hands.” Given just a single shot at existence, we owe it to ourselves to hit the mark; we must not just survive but thrive. It’s no wonder that for many of us “the story of our lives becomes the story of the lives we were prevented from living.”

The quotation above comes from a book review written by Joshua Rothman. I recommend it. The book Rothman is reviewing, by Andrew H. Miller, is titled, On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives. Rothman is an American historian; his review appeared in the December 14, 2020, edition of The New Yorker

The topic addressed by both Miller and Rothman is a topic with which I have wrestled, too. This is not, of course, very surprising. Our "unlived lives" are, truly, a "modern preoccupation." I would not be surprised to hear that you, too - you who are reading this - have also had to grapple with that famous "path not taken" thought.

My blog postings on this topic - or at least some of them, the ones I could easily find - are listed as follows: 

#239 / Ballerina Or Brain Surgeon - August 28, 2010

#253 / FOMO At A Certain Age - September 10, 2015

#168 / Where Did I Go Wrong? - June 16, 2020 

#207 / The Path Not Taken - July 25, 2020

You can see that I have been somewhat preoccupied with this topic, and for a long time, too. Basically, I have been thinking about the issue during the entire ten-year period I have been writing this blog - and before that, too, undoubtedly. Whether you call it the "Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)" or "unlived lives," or "the path not taken," I believe many of us have to struggle with this issue as a reality that irks us, as soon as we start thinking about it. 

I am well-acquainted with the life I have. But what about the life I don't have? The one I could have had? The better, more fulfilled, more productive, more important life I could have had? Where did I go wrong?

My thoughts on this matter, if you review my blog posts identified above, center on the idea that it is an error to think that we have failed in our lives because we have not had the lives we can now imagine, the lives we might have had, had we done something differently way back when. 

Just recently, as I gave final remarks in the Capstone Thesis course I taught during Fall Quarter at UCSC, I addressed this very issue with my students, all of whom are about to graduate. As I almost always do, I cited to the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado

Click the link below for his poem, for my translation, and for a link to a YouTube performance of the poem put to music

Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.

As I read Rothman's recent New Yorker article, I had a thought related to, but different from, the thought that I have always had when considering the "path not taken" problem - the thought that we should be grateful for the lives we have, instead of being preoccupied with the lives we might have had. 

What got me thinking was that statement that Rothman quoted, saying that "we have a considerable task on our hands" once we start believing that our lives are ones that we must be completely responsible for, so that every choice is fraught. That statement set my mind off in a somewhat different direction. 

Is our life, in fact, a "task?" Is it work? Is it a project that we do? If life is seen in those terms, the burdens are, indeed, considerable. However, what if life is a "gift," not a "task?" 

How ungenerous it would be to deprecate the gift we have actually received, as we look back, by comparing the gift that was given to us against some hypothetical gift we did not obtain. Rothman tells a story about how he was well on his way to a career in high tech, which could well have made him rich and famous - a Zuckerberg-type figure - except for the fact that he happened to meet a woman on an elevator, became attracted to her, married her, and ended up as a journalist with a lovely family, instead. 

Our lives are not construction projects. Much more, they are walks in the woods. They are walks across the sea. They are walks within this world into which we have been so mysteriously born. 

Our steps may go one way. They may go another. As we walk, the paths we make diverge. 

As Machado says, everything passes and everything remains, but it is our fate to pass on. Where we are going is never really known, so we make a mistake if we act like we are supposed to follow some map to some predetermined place. 

No. That is not the assignment. Put your good foot forward, on every step. Enjoy your walk.

Traveler, your footsteps
Are the path–and nothing else;
Traveler, there isn’t any path;
You make the path as you walk.

You make the path as you walk,
And when you look back
You will see the pathway that
You will never be able to travel again. 
Traveler, there isn’t any path,
Just the traces of your footsteps on the sea.

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