I’m currently in the midst of reading a book called Missing Out: in praise of the unlived life by Adam Phillips. Its prologue begins: “The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.” Phillips goes on to assert, “We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.”
It’s a compelling idea, that rather than striding forward newly reborn by the decisions we make, we actually take a little piece of that might-have-been self along with us to keep us company as we walk through life. It would make sense that the time we invested in *almost* going down a certain path would make its way into the path that we presently walk, no matter how far we’ve strayed. And what about all the time that slips away from us in the present, imagining who we might have been, where we might be now if only things had turned out a bit differently? Is that not just one more thing we are, in fact, “doing” with our present lives?
In examining my own communion with Phillips’s language, particularly the last line quoted above: “We share our lives with the people we have failed to be,” I must admit to a temptation to rephrase it, “We share our lives with the people we might have been.” It’s a subtle shift, and broadly says the same thing; however, the weight of disappointment that comes with having “failed to be” strikes me as bordering on reductive. I deeply connect with the sense of sharing my life with the past versions of myself who dreamed dreams that did not ultimately come to fruition, but many of those dreams are ones that I either am pleased I gave up or at least ones that I feel at peace with having let go. This doesn’t mean that I don’t carry little bits and pieces of that dreamer with me still. In rephrasing Phillips’s line to “We share our lives with the people we might have been,” it seems to me that a bit of space is created–these people we might have been, they are neither better nor worse than who we are in this, precise moment because they are mere imaginings of difference.
To add another layer of exploration, it becomes interesting to consider this idea within the Buddhist context.
If one of the main sources of confusion is that of walking through life with solid, fixed sense of self rather than engaging anew with each moment, is it a help or a hindrance to frame our experience of “now” as being shared with imaginings of past desires and future projections? From the Buddhist perspective, what happens (or doesn’t happen) is neither good nor bad: it’s just what is. In other words, if I lose my job, it may feel natural to regard this as an unequivocally “bad” thing: I may become upset, worried about my finances and career, feel either angry or rejected (or both) upon hearing the news. However, in reality, losing my job is not inherently good or bad. It is just a new development that will likely have both bad and good elements, neither of which can be fully anticipated in the present moment. It may be that I find an even better job, or it may be that I never ever find a job that I am as well suited for as the one I just lost, but ultimately it is impossible to say which path leads me to the “happiest” life because whatever didn’t happen, didn’t happen–there is only what did, and the only life you have is the one you are living.
And yet, part of developing prajna (wisdom), is surely recognizing patterns. Watching thoughts emerge out of nowhere only to dissolve into nothing is essential to the vajrayana practice; the key is not getting caught up, not mistaking thoughts for reality, not judging them as inherently “good” or “bad” but, instead, noticing, being curious, and letting them go. Perhaps the reconciliation between Phillips’s examination of the unlived life and Buddhism’s egolessness is a recognition that does not feed into the fantasies further, one that perceives and acknowledges without getting mired up in the implications. Perhaps there is value in taking the time to get to know our shadow companions as long as we don’t slip back into the shadows with them. At least then we know where the whispers are coming from, so we can acknowledge them, and let them go, maybe allowing us to get back to the business of living with a slightly sharper clarity in our perception.