That’s men: Might our unlived lives help us deal with reality ?


I sat in a dark pub recently, waiting for a train and wondering how the owner felt about the life path he found himself on.

Apart from myself there was only one other customer. He and the owner were absorbed in watching a match on the television.

Did the owner ever wonder if there might have been a better way to spend his life than working in this gloomy setting for all his years?

This is not really about life in a public house. It’s about the other lives that all of us could have lived if things had worked out differently or if we had made different choices.

“ . . . our unlived lives – the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives – are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives,” says Adam Phillips in Missing Out – In Praise of the Unlived Life .

I said that we all have unlived lives and that’s a big assumption.

Still, I think it’s more often true than not true, especially since we live in an era in which we are so often told that we can be anything we want to be. We can’t, but a lie told often enough takes up lodgings in the mind.

Burton’s dream job
When Richard Burton was one of the world’s biggest movie stars, I read that what he had really wanted was to be a writer. To the outside world he had everything but inside his head he had an unlived life that he never got to experience.

I used to go to a doctor who had wanted to be a journalist and who would talk to me about it because he knew I wanted the same thing. In his community he had the huge status that doctors used to have but he would far rather have spent his life writing articles in newspapers.

Many journalists, on the other hand, want to be writers. Perhaps if the doctor had been a journalist, he would have wanted to be a writer too.

My unlived life? I once had a couple of short stories published in prestigious places like the Dublin Magazine and the London Magazine . An editor from Penguin sent back a short story I sent her on the basis that they preferred to publish three or four stories at a time in their then new writers series.

When I had a few stories ready she would like to see them, she said. Book publishers do not say that sort of thing lightly so she was offering me a big opportunity.

But I feared failure or success (I’m not sure which) so much I never sent them. So there’s a whole unlived life there and it’s always going to mean something to me that I never took the step into that life.

How many priests have unlived lives as family men? How many city business people have unlived lives as farmers? How many mothers have unlived lives as businesswomen?

How we define ourselves
None of us probably talks much about the unlived life – what’s to be gained by it?

But I suspect Phillips is right when he says that these fantasy lives “are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives”.

I probably define myself as a writer more than anything else, though I have little enough to show for it. Sometimes you will come across men or women who define themselves as glamorous creatures of the world even as they buckle down to their “real” lives of home making and family raising.

Somehow it matters that, as we go through our “real” lives, we have another life in which we are different. It’s very likely that we wouldn’t actually be all that different but that doesn’t matter because we’re never going to have to test out the unlived life against reality.

So if you have an unlived life, you’re not alone – most of the people you meet in a day could probably say the same. And, no, that’s no compensation.


Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living , is published by Veritas.

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