Individual Therapy & the Unlived Life
As individual therapy shows, we all live our lives, and in the course of just “getting through” our lives, we all have to make decisions. With each major decision that we make, we open a door and walk through it. We also close at least one door, perhaps several. Sometimes that closing is forever, and we cannot go back and make the choice again. The river of life moves: we can’t reverse the flow, and head back upstream.
Whatever choices we make, we are closing off options that we could have taken. Sometimes these options call to us, beckon to us, despite our having left them behind. Sometimes we leave them behind, and don’t think of them.
But we can reach a point at which our unlived life comes back to us. Consciously, or sometimes unconsciously, we can begin to feel the weight of what might have been if only we had made different choices, if our luck had gone slightly differently, if we had seen things just a little bit more clearly. When I was at the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw a painting, which seemed to me to capture this feeling with a great deal of eloquence, American artist Ivan Wright’s That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door). For me it evoked all the “doors” that we do not open, and all the feelings — hopeful, melancholy, grieving — that are associated with them. As clients remind me constantly, there are so many choices that could have been made, each with the seductive aura of possibility surrounding it.
“If only I had married him (or her). I thought that I was too young, but my life would have been so different now — so much better.”
“If only I had gone to Vancouver that time, when I had the job offer!”
“I love my kids, but I sometimes I can’t help wondering what my life would have been like if I had stayed single.” (Or the reverse.)
“I should have had the courage to explore being an actor, instead of buckling to my father’s wishes for me, and becoming a lawyer.”
There are as many variants on these sentiments as there are people. And these are only the wishes and yearnings that make it through to consciousness. In each of us, there is a whole range of yearnings that we often cannot acknowledge even to ourselves. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. Perhaps they are realistic possibilities that could have actually been, or perhaps they are fantasies that could never have been realized. But they are an aspect of each of our souls that demands acknowledgment, and they influence us in our intimate relationships, and in all the aspects of our lives.
The unlived life can influence the way that parents are with children, to an incredible extent. Often parents are completely unaware of these dynamics. “The stage mother”, who pushes her child into a career in the movies or the entertainment business at an early age, and who lives vicariously through the child, is the stuff of legend in our society. The “hockey parent” who lives through a child’s athletic accomplishments is a similar figure, with perhaps more of a Canadian twist. But the dynamic goes on in a million ways. Perhaps we have been subjected to it as children. Perhaps — and this takes great courage to admit — we are unconsciously pressuring our children to live out things that we were unable to live in our lives, rather than letting them be themselves.
However the unlived life may manifest, we need the strength to look at what our lives really are, and to acknowledge where our own unlived life either holds us in the past or in regret. We need to bring back and to openly and honestly look at the things that never were. Perhaps they still call to us, and demand that we passionately embrace them and live them out in our own present, as part of our individuation. Perhaps they are possibilities that are gone forever, and we must mourn their passing so that we we can embrace and live out the real possibilities in our current lives.
We have the present, and it is in the present that the Self will meet us, if we are open, honest and courageous enough to look within.