Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is the unlived life worth examining?

Every now & then I will learn about a new book through a book review... I don't always get around to reading the book itself (lol), but the review alone often provides food for thought (& blog posts!).

One such review was in the New York Times Sunday Book Review a couple of weekends ago. The book was "Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life" by Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst & writer.

Here are a few excerpts from the review (emphasis mine):

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What’s at stake throughout these essays is how we understand the “lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.” Phillips’s clinical practice (he sees patients four days a week and writes on Wednesdays) has shown him that “we live as if we know more about the experiences we don’t have than the experiences we do have.” He refers to these parallel or shadow lives as our “unlived lives,” and says that many of us “spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason” that “they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives.”

It’s hard not to find this embarrassingly familiar: the unloved lovers, the unsucceeded successes. We’re so sure of what our unlived lives would have been like that we feel guilty for not living them — for not living up to our potential. ...

The questions that interest him most — “Why is it so difficult to enjoy not getting it?” “Is there someone ordering us around in our minds to try to get it?” — are purposefully broad, because the content of the “it” is less important than the form of the question. “It” is whatever “it” means to the reader at the moment: a raise, a joke, a girlfriend, a poem. ...Although we’ve been educated to want to get it, there are forgotten pleasures in not getting it...

...he offers us another kind of hope too — not the consumerist one, that all our dreams may come true, but the hope that our frustrations might lead us out of the fantasy world in our minds and into an engagement with what is. After all, “the only satisfactions available are the satisfactions of reality, which are themselves frustrating.”

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There is so much there to chew on. "What was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives.”

The thing about infertility is that you are so focused on the life you so desperately want to be living,  the life that IS possible (frustratingly so) for the vast majority of the population -- a life with babies, with children -- the things you don't have but badly want -- that you neglect to focus on & enjoy the life you ARE living, the here and now (except as it relates to how it relates to getting you closer to your goal, to that other life you want to be living).

And the difficult thing about living childless/free after infertility and loss is that we are so constantly reminded that what was not possible for us is possible for so many others. In a world where the lives of our friends and relatives so often revolves around children and parenting, we hover on the periphery. It's easy to get stuck, focusing on what we don't have and didn't get.

What was not possible -- the children we did not have -- will always cast a shadow over our lives. The question is how much we let that define us. I've always said that I am more than my uterus. When I look back at the end of my life, I want my life to be about, and I want to be remembered for, so much more than the fact that I didn't get to have the family I wanted. I don't want to be immediately identified as "the one whose baby died."  I am proud to be Katie's mom, make no mistake, and there is no denying the huge impact that infertility, pregnancy loss and involuntary childlessness have had on my life.

But I  am not just "the childless one." I am also a coworker, a loyal employee, a writer. I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a niece, a cousin, a very proud aunt. I am a friend.

Yes, I lost a baby and had some bad things happen to me. But sooner or later, in some form or another, grief and loss come to us all. I have grieved. But I've also laughed & loved (some say grief is the price we pay for having loved someone). I have a nice home, a loving husband and family, a good job, some great memories, and the prospect of creating more.

My life is not perfect. Maybe it could be better. But it could also be a heck of a lot worse.

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La Belette Rouge actually HAS read the book, and wrote about it on her blog (with the same post title as mine -- great minds, etc., lol). You can find her thoughts (much more coherent than mine...!), right here.


  1. I spent so many years living my life with an 'what if...' ttitude, not good. I work hard at looking at the good things in my life. The real things not the imagined and it has made a difference to my state of mind. Some moments, some occasions, are still hard but life is better now that I am learning to be content.

  2. Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post, which I find especially resonates with me at the moment.

    I have been a long-time lurker on your blog (which I think I found via Glow in the Woods), but just wanted to express my appreciation for this today. And yes, you are so many wonderful things, and may not even realise how supportive and important you are to readers like me who you've never met.

  3. I've been rereading this post and thinking a lot about it. You hit the nail on the head, Loribeth. When I reflect back on my life, I find I have a tendency to focus on the failures and the things not accomplished instead of the things I have accomplished and how I am living my life. It explains so much why I've been emotionally distressed for so long.

    I agree, there are horrible events in my life that I will never be able to forget, but the truth is we can chose to focus on them and forever mourn or we can recognize what we do have and celebrate that while growing from loss. Thank you for this reminder to live.

  4. I'm glad you wrote about it (I also read La Belette Rouge's post, but I like thinking about these things and hearing more thoughts about it). In fact, now I, without reading the book may have to write about it :-)

    I think a lot about the roads not taken, the what ifs not played out.

  5. Excellent post. Let me just add a new dimension to the reflections: parenting after infertility.

    When (if) at long last you have a living child after struggling with infertility, you also wonder about the life you are not living, i.e. your life as a childless person. The quid here is that you a) sometimes miss your old life and b) feel horribly guilty as a result.

    More food for thought. :-)

  6. I am so glad you wrote this post!!!!!!And, dear Loribeth, I take issue with the idea that mine is more coherent than you're a. ;-) I got a lot out of this post. Infertility is marked by absence, and as you say so well in this post, we are more than that absence. We can( I certainly have at different points) when dealing with infertility, lose sight of who we are and what we have and feel like the only thing that is real is the absence and, of course, that is not true. We are both our absence and our presence. I suppose that Phillips might argue that we are made more by the absence, but that doesn't always feel true. Great post, Loribeth! And thanks for the link over to me.:-)

  7. Great post. I came over from stirrup queens and had also read the post by La Belette Rouge and I can see where in the past I've spent nearly all of my time focusing on my unloved life or what I thought I should have that I never see what I do have.

  8. Great post. This is a timely issue for me: last night my husband asked me whether we'll ever stop talking about infertility. I was surprised because I don't think I talk about it that much. I am definitely more than my uterus too. Thanks for reminding me of that :) It's easy to lose sight of that when everyone around me is pregnant again.

  9. Great post Loribeth. You know being fairly young and definitely infertile, I am trying to define my life as I want it to be. Who I want to be, and try to keep in perspective that being "barren" is only one aspect of my life. I feel because there is a very large emphasis on family and children still in society though, it is hard to not get sucked into thinking about the things I am not more and imagine my life differently. I think I'll definitely have to check out this book.

    This post was very thought provoking.. love your thoughts on this topic.