The unlived lives we live

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nicolePsychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ recent book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life examines the tender, private narratives of the often secret fantasies, what-ifs, and and-thens that comprise the hazards of human agency and cosmic chance. The book, at its most poignant moments, is a paean to our lives of mundane inner longing and fictionalizing. Phillips finds that we each, to a certain degree, live parallel lives: the one we are living and the ones we might have lived. He interprets this phenomenon within a framework of agency, in which each choice we make forecloses infinite alternate paths, though our agency is of course imperfect, negotiating expanses of contingency and randomness.

Phillips sees the unlived life as deeply essential to the fabric of our lived lives, with our lived life ‘an elegy to unmet needs and sacrificed desires.’ Haunted by the myth of what could have been, Phillips believes our experience of frustration is the most potent index to our desires. He suggests that learning to use our frustrations, rather than avoiding the experience of dissatisfaction, may be our key to a life fully lived. I have no claim to psychoanalytic or therapeutic credentials, but wish to explore, for a moment, this dialectic between lives lived and unlived.

Though we may carry for years within us secret plans or publicly avowed intentions to return to certain opportunities or to remeet a far away lover, rarely will we remeet them in the pristine conditions necessary to make real our unlived lives. How often it happens that when such moments of reunion finally do obtain we are confronted not with that which we had carried within us all that time, but a changed person and, also, the reflection in that person of our changed self. Sadly, the dreamed-of city or vocation more often seems dimmer once we make our way back to it. As does Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, often we find that that which we long for, over time, becomes more real to us in our minds, in our unlived lives, than it would be to us in the flesh. It is a fiction indeed that our unlived lives are better for they often are premised upon a sliver of a moment that we protect from time and weather. If they do seem to us better it is because they do not challenge or provoke us—moving to L.A. so easily offered that big break and those far away lovers, ever young and fresh, love us still.

One finds yet another of the tragic tones of the unlived life unveiled in Tobias Wolff’s short story Kiss about a forty-five year old man Joe Reed. Joe has lived a full life—he has been married for seventeen years to a pediatrician with whom he has a teenaged son and daughter. Yet all the while in his head he has also lived “another, submerged life” with Mary Claude, his high school love whom he hasn’t seen since he was fifteen and whom, even then, he only dated for three months. For thirty years he has continued his phantom life with Mary Claude. His life with her most poignantly centers not on drastic moves and hurdles mounted together, but rather on the banal and the forgettable, still and relatively unchanging. His real life progressed—there “came a time when his daughter ceased to confide. Both daughter and son developed private sources of amusement, and Joe began to detect a certain condescension in their handling of him . . . [his wife], too, kept changing on him. When they first met, she was girlish and unsure of herself in spite of being three years older than Joe, but since then she’d grown calm and regal, which both unsettled and excited him.” And still, through all those years he thought of Mary Claude—“he thought of Mary Claude sitting across from him at a table in a kitchen, barely awake, drinking coffee. The kitchen was small and untidy and Mary Claude’s robe gaped open as she bent to drink. She saw him looking and looked back at him . . . He thought of them standing on a porch waving as friends drove off. And when they were alone Mary Claude turned to him and slipped an arm around his waist, and they went slowly inside and up the stair . . .”

What is there to redeem Joe’s fiction? Is the happiness he derives from his imagined life any less real for it being imagined? It seems not to detract in any crucial way from his living of his real life, so what then would Adam Phillips say is the missed opportunity? Phillips asserts a difference between nostalgia for something that happened and something that could have happened. He analogizes the problem of the latter to the metaphor of choosing a dish off a menu: you cannot eat everything on the menu, so the important question is if you can enjoy what you’ve ordered, knowing everything that you have not ordered. Perhaps if, like Samuel Hamilton in East of Eden, Joe never allowed his private love to impair his ability to be present within his full-flesh reality, there is no tragedy, and there was nothing to be learned through Adam Phillips’ method of analyzing one’s frustrations. Yet, isn’t Joe’s story heartbreaking still? An imagined life and its happiness may be no less real, but can it contain any meaning if it is ours alone?


If anything we perhaps learn that fantasy is inherent to our existence, and that we should aim to suffuse our reality with more of our fantasy, such that we need not depart from the real to meet what may in some ways be our most captivating needs. Phillips’s 2001 book Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape closes with the statement: “Every modern person has their own repertoire of elsewheres, of alternatives—the places they go to in their minds, and the ambitions they attempt to realize—to make their actual, lived lives more than bearable. Indeed the whole notion of escape—that it is possible and desirable—is like a prosthetic device of the imagination. How could we live without it?”

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.

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