I wonder if it’s any coincidence that an essay called “What if You Could Do It All Over?” seems to be getting a lot of traction near the end of the darkest month of what has been a fairly bleak year? It’s fairly natural, on one level, to wonder about lives that might have been when we’re all living lives that we never imagined we would be and that few of us want (I suspect the bloom is coming off the proverbial rose even for those extreme introverts who half a year ago were joking that all this enforced social isolation was just what they’d always been dreaming of). Not to mention, it’s easy, when we’re all stuck at home for long periods of time, to wander off into nostalgia, romanticizing the past, and hypothesizing about what might have happened if we had chosen y or z way back when instead of x. Unlived lives can often serve as both reproach and escape.
But even without a pandemic looming large over us and making us pine for anything but this, we all occasionally wonder along the lines Joshua Rothman reflects on in his piece in the The New Yorker. What if? What if I had gone left instead of right at that one fork in the road back in my twenties? What if I hadn’t met that person who changed the direction of my life from that point onward? What if I had stuck out that job instead of wandering off after different pursuits? What if I had cultivated contentment instead of chasing after restless impulses? What if I had taken that risk? What I had succeeded instead of failed at that one venture? What if had stood up taller in the face of that hardship instead of shrinking in fear? The list of “what ifs” could be virtually endless in any given life. We know how much difference even one small choice can make in the course of a human life, particularly with the benefit of hindsight. The “butterfly effect,” and all that.
Alan Jacobs is one of many who have reflected upon the Rothman essay and what its resonance might have to say to us here and now. Jacobs ponders, in particular, what the piece omits:
But what Rothman’s essay doesn’t say a word about is how we might, after reflecting on lives we didn’t get, live the one that has actually been given to us.
Indeed. For that is the question, at the end of it all, isn’t it? Marinating in hypothetical land might be fun, for a while. It might even be inevitable in the midst of a global pandemic. But if we stay there, we easily spiral down into resignation and despair. After all of our wistful sighs at the better lives we could have lived, we still have move forward in the life we are living. As Jacobs puts it, “There is considerably more interest, and infinitely more value, in considering how our story might best continue than in speculating about what might have been.”
For me, one of the most telling parts of Rothman’s essay is a paragraph tucked away in the middle, in between cultural referents as disparate as The Iliad and Brokeback Mountain. Describing unled lives as a largely modern preoccupation, Rothman says this:
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.”
Is that the key piece of the puzzle, I wonder? The “single shot?” Does our lack of conviction that our lives have any kind of transcendent meaning and reference point, or that they could in any way extend into the future download an intolerable amount of pressure on this life? And in the absence of the aforementioned transcendent reference point, do our “unlived lives” take on an almost eschatological dimension, giving us, if not anything like hope for the future then at least respite for the existential constraints of the present?
The argument that we need a conception of life that goes on to make sense of these lives which end and to live them well will strike many as a too-convenient fantasy. What, so dreaming up some heavenly bliss is supposed to take the edge off this life and make it more bearable? Harps and clouds compensate for all the struggles here and now? An imaginary future saves us from the temptation of dwelling in imaginary pasts?
Well, yes, actually, if not in some of the simplistic and caricatured ways in which we often talk about the life to come. I do believe that having a coherent sense of the telos of a human life and the hope of a future where all of the roads we did not take are gathered up into a story of forgiveness and redemption is a crucial piece of living generously in the present—with ourselves and with others.
Our lives, on their own, cannot bear the weight of hope and desire that we long for. We seem to need more—and we should pay better attention to this basic fact of our humanity. If we believe that the story we are a part of has a meaning that we are not responsible for creating for ourselves, if we believe that there are possibilities for ourselves and for our world that outrun our present experience, then the story of our lives becomes not the story of the lives we were prevented from living but the story of the life we have been “given,” in the truest and deepest sense of the word.