Living Your Unlived Life — What I Learned Today

Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm and gardened from the wilderness of space the sensual properties of one dear face?

When W. H. Auden asked this question, he was in the process of making some of the most important choices in his life: a new homeland, a long term partner, to believe in a Christian god. He knew that he was closing down his options, and he fully recognized the cost; he was thirty-three years old, and he had begun making difficult choices as a teenager.

We talk constantly about making choices that will allow us to keep our options open. But if our options remain open, then we have not made any choice. Deliberately or not, most of us gradually allow options to slip away as our lives lead somewhere increasingly specific. So why are we haunted by the options we foreclosed? To draw on another poet, whom Auden loved in youth, why should we go on thinking about the road we did not travel?

The allure of that other road intensifies precisely because we did not travel it. It represents potential, something yet to be discovered. The sensation of looking down such a road, of having real options to weigh, a choice before us, makes us feel young. For every sacrifice we have made, for every disappointment we have experienced, we wonder whether there might have been fulfilment along that other road. We wonder whether the different person we might have become would have been more to our liking.

But this is all imaginary. How easily we overlook the fact that the other road, any other road, would inevitably have led somewhere just as specific as where we are now. Electronic culture and contemporary advertising spread images of constant personal satisfaction, pleasure, fun, so perhaps we are overwhelmed by the evidently joyful roads chosen and travelled by others.

Now that people live longer than ever before, the choice of life which conventionally had to be made in youth seems to offer itself again, maybe somewhere around age fifty, especially for those who are lucky enough to have achieved material security. We praise those who try new things, launch second careers, reinvent themselves. But do we want to sacrifice the life we have? How many of us made absolutely the wrong choices? For there is always a cost, always something that must be given up or pushed aside in order to move forward at all.

The inner life, the life of the imagination, books, art, even internet avatars, offer us as they always have offered, the opportunity to live as many unlived lives as we want. Anyone who can go to a movie or even daydream has the chance to explore all roads. Such activities are not a crutch. They are central to human life, psychological health, happiness. The life of the mind is creative and fulfilling, and in it, perfection is possible as it will never be in reality. When we confuse fantasy and reality, when we lose the discipline of discrimination and self-restraint, when we try to act out for real something which should only be imagined, we risk sacrificing our real life and disappointing or even damaging ourselves or those close to us.

It’s essential to make choices and commitments, and while they should always be reviewed and reassessed, we should spend as little time as possible regretting them. Unpicking, doing over, just makes us all into Hamlets. Or worse, it suggests that everything we may have achieved through previous choices did not matter or was in fact a failure.

An authentic life must be lived with integrity. That calls for choosing and committing without holding back, without developing a secret Plan B. Why return to the uncertainties of youth, when we had to keep our options open because we didn’t really know who we were and what we wanted to be? We have become something particular because we made choices and built upon them. Funnily enough, who we have become may be more evident to others around us than to ourselves, because the inner life is amorphous and constantly shifting. But seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of others, especially others who have known us over time, helps us to recognize and to value ourselves.

Art is not separate from life, art is a part of life. Even in the most ordinary seeming lives, we are manipulating chaos in order to make a particular form. Just as there is a spectrum of consciousness from dreaming to waking, there is a spectrum of consciousness from the half-aware shaping of day-to-day routine to the highest intensity of sophisticated creative endeavour. Art begins by choosing a subject, and pushing everything else out of the frame, and this is what we do when we make a choice which requires us to reject other possibilities. If we mourn too much for what we push outside the frame, how will we ever take pleasure in what we are framing? We are all trying to show the whirlwind how to be an arm. And once we have the arm, we should continue on to the properties of the individual face rather than return to—dare I say reap?—the whirlwind.