22 May The Life Not Taken
Have you ever imagined yourself living a different life to the one you have, or even being someone else? In his book, On Not Being Someone Else, Professor Andrew Miller ruminates on our “lives unled”, the lives we would have lived if things had worked out differently. He asks himself, “what if I hadn’t gone to a different college? What if my girlfriend hadn’t broken up with me? What if my parents hadn’t gotten a divorce? What if my wife and I hadn’t had children?” Etc etc. There are choices we make for ourselves, and which others make for us, that determine who we are and what our future will be.
Miller’s tour d’horizon covers literature, psychology and movies. Miller cites Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, as “a poem of metaphysical resignation, of sorrow at our inevitable relinquishments.” The question left hanging at the end of the poem is, in what way would my life have been different if I had taken that other road? A mood of regret hovers over Miller’s investigation: “There’s loss to be found”, he writes, “if you look, in the bare fact that you’ve had only one past and arrived at only one present.”
The poet Philip Larkin diagnoses the problem in his ironic poem “To My Wife”
“Matchless potential! But unlimited
Only so long as I elected nothing.”
In Larkin’s poem, the decision to do one thing closes the door to other possibilities. But in electing to go one way, a myriad of new opportunities may emerge. Sometimes life is like a game of chess, where there can be many variations from a single move. Regret arises where the wrong choice is made; but then, like Frank Sinatra in “My Way”, who has lived a life without regrets? It’s a game you can play ad infinitum: to mull over what could have been. The main question is, where am I now, and does anything need to change?
Professor Miller doesn’t include God in his survey, but from my own experience I can see the action of God in a number of pivotal moments in my own life. In these, I include both the good and the bad. God gives us free will, which includes the freedom to make mistakes and end up in a bad place. However, the good news is that God does not abandon us to our fate; he is always reaching out to help us when the going gets tough. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
When we place too much store in our own agency, it becomes easy to blame ourselves for not having the life we wanted. Generally speaking, we like to imagine ourselves faring better than we have already, and to underestimate the impact we have on others. In his book, Professor Miller analyses the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, starring James Stewart. The main character’s frustration with his life leads him to contemplate suicide. It takes an angel to show him how the world would have looked without him. Much poorer, it turns out, and the revelation brings him to a greater self awareness. He discovers that he matters far more than he realizes.
Our faith teaches us that we are all made in the image of God, and each of us is a child loved by God. Our identity is unique, and each person has an inherent value in God’s eyes. Wanting a life other than our own, or thinking it could have turned out better, is a fantasy. Learning to see ourselves as God sees us will build a picture of us that is more truthful, loving and forgiving, in contrast to the sometimes overly negative image we create for ourselves. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. (John 10:10) Our invitation from Jesus is to receive this abundant life, which is greater than we realize, or even deserve, but which will help us to be the person God called us to be.