With thanks to Leah in NC for providing me the link to this article in Elle magazine:
Frustration and regret can be good for you, according to one of the most provocative contemporary thinkers in the field of human psychology.
Unlike Edith Piaf, the French singer-songwriter whose nickname was Little Sparrow and whose most famous songs included “Non, je ne regrette rien,” I’ve always been inordinately full of regrets. This was a habit of mind that started young—when I decided not to go to sleepaway camp one summer and then spent the next two months being bored and resentful, wishing I had taken the opportunity presented me—and has stayed with me right through the present. The might-have-dones and should-have-dones always weigh more heavily on me than the decisions I’ve actually made. I am convinced, in fact, that I am not living the life I was meant to live. In one alternate narrative, I’ve remained married to my ex-husband, whose quirks and foibles I’ve come to terms with and whose virtues I appreciate more, with the result that we’ve become each other’s boon companions. In yet another of these fantasized scenarios, I have embraced academia rather than fled from it after two years of graduate school and have gone on to become an esteemed professor of English literature specializing in the Bloomsbury group, spending my days rereading Virginia Woolf. The point of these parallel lives isn’t so much their feasibility, of course—had I been able to do other than I did, I probably would have—as their hovering presence, suggesting the roads not taken and where they might have led.
I have been thinking about this tendency of mine, what it says about me, and how I might “ironize” it rather than agonize over it, ever since reading Adam Phillips’ new book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. Phillips is a British psychoanalyst, a kind of post-Freudian Freudian who specializes in taking conventional views of ourselves and the world we live in and turning them upside down, something he has done to great effect in books such as On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored, The Beast in the Nursery, and Going Sane. Phillips’ style—pithy verging on the epigrammatic, erudite, and always cordial—sets him apart from other shrinks who write and, indeed, from most writers. He is spectacularly well read, given to quoting Stanley Cavell and John Ashbery along with Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan, and is enamored of paradox; the effect is of stepping into a heady, open-ended conversation about everything from the nature of childhood discontent to what constitutes madness. At their best, Phillips’ ruminations can be read as a form of recondite self-help for people who disdain the chicken-soup banalities of the genre itself; at their worst, they can become self-indulgently fanciful, as if one were listening in on a dazzling but ultimately impenetrable interior monologue.
Phillips contends that the idea of the unlived life—or, as he also calls it, “the myth of our potential”—is more prevalent now than it once was, because “affluence has allowed more people than ever before to think of their lives in terms of choices and options…. Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed….” This abiding sense of a double life—which most of us, I think, will instinctively recognize as true—can work in two ways: It can haunt us with its reminder of “a perpetual falling-short,” thereby filling us with loss and rage, or it can make us inquire more deeply into the pleasures available in the lives we do manage to create, filled though they are with frustration and compromised desires.
One of my sharpest feelings of regret involves a vision of myself as Marmee in Little Women—a materfamilias with a brood of children, all happily swarming around me—rather than what I have turned out to be: the mother of an only daughter who loves me one minute and despises me the next. To this day, although my daughter is 23 and I am no longer of procreative age, I suffer from acute pangs of baby-hunger. I’ve always been fascinated by babies and very small children, and as a young woman I was a devoted aunt to my nieces and nephews, happily giving up Saturday nights to babysit, even when it created ripples in my romantic relationships of the moment. (I remember dragging an unwilling boyfriend with me on one of these evenings, which he spent staring balefully at my nephew Noah’s toddler antics, refusing to be charmed.) I fully expected to follow in my sisters’ fecund footsteps but hadn’t counted on the vagaries of either my own temperament, which plunged me into postpartum depression after my daughter was born, or my life circumstances, which led to a separation from my husband when our daughter was four and an eventual divorce. A second (unplanned) pregnancy in my early forties ended in a miscarriage, and I debated the pros and cons of adopting a child as a single mother without ever taking a decisive step. All the while, my baby-yearning has lingered, manifesting itself in a variety of ways small and large. These range from an ongoing feeling of nostalgia for my daughter’s early years and a pained sense that I hadn’t fully appreciated them, hadn’t been sufficiently alert to every gurgle and adorable bit of phrasing, to a feeling of wistfulness that still overcomes me whenever I pass mothers with young children on the street. Recently, a cousin who is my age adopted an infant girl after putting in years of effort, and when I went over to visit the new arrival, I felt love-struck all over again. Actually, I’d been smitten even before I met baby Rachel, when I picked out some winsome clothes for her in one of the many children’s stores that have cropped up on New York City’s Upper East Side, and I was put in mind of all that goes into new-babyness: the clean cottons, the sweet smell, the softness of their skulls.
Much as my Marmee scenario haunts me, however, the truth is I was probably never meant for such a capaciously child-centric existence. My nurturing instinct was at war with other instincts, especially since I didn’t feel particularly well-mothered myself, and I don’t think I was really constructed for years of getting up in the middle of the night to the sounds of helpless cries requiring soothing or a glass of water. Then again, frustration of one’s desires, as it turns out in Phillips’ unpacking of the term, is not always the enemy it looks on the surface to be. For one thing, it can help us know what we want (“frustration is optimistic in the sense that it believes that what is wanted is available”); for another, it can, more dramatically, inspire us to change. “The frustration scene—which goes back a long way—is the scene of transformation. Everything depends on what we would rather do than change.”
Last but not least, these unlived or “wished-for” lives are as important to us as our real existence—if not more so—because they provide us with a metaphysical safety net, allowing us to consider transgressive urges and ungratifiable impulses without necessarily acting on them. In my actual life, for example, I’ve been leery of following some of my more far-flung erotic inclinations—which often involve “reforming” a man who seems incapable of real tenderness but all the same offers tantalizing glimpses of it—because I have the feeling that they’ll lead nowhere good in the long run. About two years ago, I met a man, a well-known lawyer, who intrigued me. I seemed to intrigue him as well, except that the nature of his interest, as became apparent over a series of e-mails, was single-mindedly, even brutally, lewd: I was to show up at his apartment, wearing no underwear, and we were to engage in the sexual position of his preference (take a big guess), all the while not speaking a word to each other. Then I was to leave. It appealed to me on the level of a consuming and elemental Heathcliffian passion, except that I knew I’d be secretly hoping for some soulful connection that would envelop us in cozy intimacy, in shared confidences over dinner—and that definitely wasn’t part of his proposal.
Some level of foiled gratification, Phillips argues, is written into our Darwinian-determined reality, which underscores our ultimate insignificance in the grander scheme of things (the fact that “we are nothing special—on a par with ants and daffodils”), at the same time that our upbringing and culture are directed toward making us feel special, anything but accidental. We begin with this existential dichotomy and make our way from there, inventing objects of desire to suit our earliest, most opulent longings, as well as our “formative frustrations.” In my own case, I imagine I’ll always be a woman in search of a fundamentally elusive man because I was once a little girl with an unfathomably remote father, and that kind of male figure is most familiar to me. “All love stories are frustration stories,” Phillips calmly notes. “Clearly, parents and children want the impossible from each other. This is the tragedy of everyday life.” Yet, one might press Phillips, can’t the romantic liaisons offered by adult life act as a kind of compensation for the imperfect romance between parent and child—specifically, that much-ballyhooed search for your soul mate, the person who understands you inside and out? Alas, this too, according to Phillips, is something of an “unrealistic wanting,” a misreading of our own natures, founded as they are on “the phobia of self-knowledge.” We want to be known, in other words, but only insofar as we know ourselves. “If it had to be formulated, in brief, we could say that the man or woman of your dreams is the person who both gets you and doesn’t get you in the way you prefer to be got.”
So how is it that, given all this dispassionate realism, this steady assertion of inadequacies and fallibilities, I came away from Phillips’ investigations with, if not quite a spring in my step and a song in my heart, the easing of anxiety one feels after an especially good therapy session or a long conversation with a close friend? Perhaps it has something to do with that, for all his unrelenting scrutiny, Phillips is actually quite forgiving of our befuddlement in the face of the things that hobble us from the start. In a chapter called “On Getting Out of It,” for instance, he analyzes why some of us must maintain “a get-out clause” in relationships. “It is as though when we get out of something…” he observes, “we act as if we know far more than we could—about what would happen if we stayed. That in order to free ourselves from certain things we have to fake an omniscience about the future….” I put a check mark next to this passage when I read it, feeling that it clarified something about my own hit-and-run approach to intimacy, my tendency to bolt for what looks like freedom when it might merely be another form of confinement.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is that in an age when the word closure is bandied about endlessly, about everything from mass killings to a failed romance, it is tonic to read the musings of an analyst who forgoes offering resolutions (sometimes maddeningly) in favor of asking questions and positing possibilities. His line of polite but persistent inquiry gave me pause, made me wonder why I insisted upon thinking in certain ways. Why, he asks, do we talk about the experiences we haven’t had with greater authority than about the experiences we have had? What is it about the present moment that we are trying to avoid? In his willingness to take a second and third look at our standard operating procedures, Phillips succeeds in widening the vista of our emotional landscape—and delicately shifting the way we go about assigning meaning and constructing coherent plots for our lives.
Regrets? I have more than a few. But after reading Missing Out, I find myself wondering whether there’s anything inherently objectionable (or, in the parlance of our day, “unhealthy”) about them. Might they not speak to a certain openness of mind, in fact, a willingness to indulge the imagination even when it would be easier to pretend to a sense of immovable conviction? In my own case, having never been taken with the seductions of certainty in the first place, I’ve decided to try to embrace my regrets from here on out, to water them daily, so to speak, the better to establish my own personal outpost of irresolution.