Regretting Our Unlived Lives

The always indefatigable Mockingbird scored an epic win this week with Wednesday’s “Sharing Our Lives with the People We Have Failed to Be” [1]. The majority of the post was a quotation from the introduction to Adam Phillips’ book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. I found such solace in Phillips’ assessment of the modern “myth of potential” (love that phrase) and its attendant discontent, viz. our dissatisfaction with the identities we found ourselves inhabiting. It starkly (read: accurately) diagnosed a lie I’ve frequently fed myself but also shed gospel light on the hollowness of its accusative power. 

I wasted too much of 2013 bemoaning how I hadn’t completed college yet, how I hadn’t run headlong after trying to get published as a sci-fi author, how I had “squandered” a couple of years pursuing pastoral ministry with all that I had (and I do mean all: I say that to my shame), blah blah blah… None of these complaints are true, though; these are all bitter assertions of who I mistakenly assume I have to be to find validation, symptoms of law rearing its ugly, belligerent head and dismantling the contentment that is mine in Christ. (There’s simply no other reason I would wrack my brain and soul laboring to write the ultimate scholarly review of Iron Man 3… Sigh.) We’ve all felt that millstone-heavy regret that comes with looking back on courses and options that went unchosen as though they’ve ruined any possibility of meaning or happiness or fulfillment ever again. Phillips’ point is that this dismay is a distinctly modern phenomenon, that these “alternatives” are phantoms, that they actually contribute positively to who we are. Only divine power can make this anything more than a rhetorical band-aid on real hurt, though. I pray therefore that the Lord will make these paragraphs vehicles of life and comfort you as much as they’ve comforted me. Lines in bold are original to the Mockingbird post:

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 kinds 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.

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters, and may the Lord give you eyes to see where you are and who you are aren’t accidents of oversight or punishments for cowardice but gifts of extraordinary, unmerited grace.

[1] Available at


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