So I’ve just cracked the spine on Adam Phillips’ Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, and I’m baffled it’s taken me so long to get started. (Let’s just say, it’s no wonder we open the first issue of our magazine with a quote from him.) The psychologist-philosopher has an adept handle on the interior human life–on the hidden, subterranean you and me–but he can also describe it for non-philosophers like you and me.
Missing Out is about classic, fork-in-the-road questions of identity. When Robert Frost took “the road less traveled” and Jesus called us through the “narrow gate,” Phillips looks back at the roads untraveled, at what we missed, and describes human identity as a constant looking back upon the lives we have chosen not to live–or the lives that we have failed to live–or the lives that, much to our frustration, have always eluded us. For Phillips, we are as much a measure of the selves we aren’t as the self we happen to be facing in the mirror today. What about the one we used to love, or the one we picture ourselves loving someday? What about the job we longed for and never got? Or the job we got, but what it could be in ten years? As he says, “We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.”
As he sees it, this all comes down to our mythology of “potential.” We talk about who we could be if only we dream it, we talk of our careers as scaffolding yet to be built upon, and so the question of who we aren’t, or aren’t yet, is what drives us into the living of life. This comes from the introduction:
There is always what will turn out to be the life we led, and the life that accompanied it, the parallel life (or lives) that never actually happened, that we lived in our minds, the wished-for life (or lives): the risks untaken and the opportunities avoided or unprovided. We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason–and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason–they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are. As we know more now than ever before about the kids of lives it is possible to live–and affluence has allowed more people than ever before to think of their lives in terms of choices and options–we are always haunted by the myth of our potential, of what we might have it in ourselves to be or do. So when we are not thinking, like the characters in Randall Jarrell’s poem, that “The ways we miss our lives is life,” we are grieving or regretting or resenting our failure to be ourselves as we imagine we could be. We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.
We discover these unlived lives most obviously in our envy of other people, and in the conscious (and unconscious) demands we make on our children to become something that was beyond us. And, of course, in our daily frustrations. Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken. The myth of our potential can make of our lives a perpetual falling-short, a continual and continuing loss, a sustained and sometimes sustaining rage; though at its best it lures us into the future, but without letting us wonder why such lures are required (we become promising through the promises made to us). The myth of potential makes mourning and complaining feel like the realest things we ever do; and makes of our frustration a secret life of grudges. Even if we set aside the inevitable questions–How would we know if we had realized our potential? Where did we get our picture of this potential from? If we don’t have potential what do we have?–we can’t imagine our lives without the unlived lives they contain. We have an abiding sense, however obscure and obscured, that the lives we do lead are informed by the lives that escape us. That our lives are defined by loss, but loss of what might have been; loss, that is, of things never experienced. Once the next life–the better life, the fuller life–has to be in this one, we have a considerable task on our hands. Now someone is asking us not only to survive but to flourish, not simply or solely to be good but to make the most of our lives. It is a quite different kind of demand. The story of our lives becomes the story of the lives we were prevented from living.
…So it is worth wondering what the need to be special prevents us seeing about ourselves–other, that is, than the unfailing transience of our lives; what the need to be special stops us from being…For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives; and by what sabotages the pleasures we seek…And this discord, this supposed mismatch, is the origin of engaged political action; as though we believe there is a world elsewhere of what Freud calls ‘complete satisfaction’, and that Camus might call a more just world. Any ideal, any preferred world, is a way of asking, what kind of world are we living in that makes this the solution (our utopias tell us more about our unlived lives, and their privations, than about our wished-for lives); or, to put it more clinically, what would the symptom have to be for this to be the self-cure? In our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, far less frustrated versions of ourselves. In our wishes–which Freud put at the centre of our lives–we bridge the gap between what we are and what we want to be as if by magic; and, by the same token, we sow the seeds of our unlived lives.