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Polly Devlin: A Life Less Lived

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Do you wonder what might have been had you made different choices and decisions or had different opportunities and chances? Polly Devlin is intrigued by a book from the psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips that says the paths we don’t follow in life are almost as important as the ones we do

This article first appeared in The Gloss Magazine in April 2013. We’re opening the archive so you can read a Polly column every week …

Do you have a double life? I don’t mean a bit on the side! But the life you might have lived if things and circumstances hadn’t prevented you? Is that double life a constant in your life? I’m not talking regrets about the life we have lived, or about nostalgia, but about the imaginary life that lives alongside you in your mental life. We all have parallel (imaginary) unlived lives that we fantasise about, and these are at least as valuable as the ones we lead.

I live in Northern Ireland. I have been a teacher but got involved in politics because it was impossible not to, given any sort of integrity and my rage at how it was as a Catholic growing up in this God-(soi-disant)-ridden province. I have not been as brave as my namesake Bernadette and I have often been frightened. The rest I can’t quite fathom … Is this a version of my unlived life, a parallel ghost life, one of many I might have lived if I had stayed at “home”?

Once in France someone I don’t know very well but like a lot came to stay from Dublin and over a drink he spoke of my work – as such – and mentioned what people thought of me. I was alarmed. SCARY CONCEPT. I never think people think of me. “And what do ‘people’ [I made that Friends fingers gesture] think of me?” I didn’t want to know but curiosity got the better of me. “Unfulfilled promise,” he said. I thought gloomily of my life, my husband, my children, my grandchildren, the way I feed the greedy beast that is daily life, the places I’ve lived in, the books, the essays, the houses, the watercolours and ceramics, the friendships, my students in New York, my optional activities, the love surrounding me and thought: because I didn’t devote my life to writing it’s judged as unfulfilled. Then I thought about the life I would have had if I had stayed in the place where, somehow deep inside me, I still call home. I am living in Northern Ireland. I have been a teacher but got involved in politics. I do not have children. I have a husband who takes care of my daily needs. I am a writer. I read that Philip Roth has a notice pinned over his desk “No Optional Activity” so I follow his stricture and I don’t do much else during the day except write and live life to suit myself. I publish a book once every two years. I am reviewed, I am invited to talk at festivals, and I become a public figure. Is this my other parallel unlived life?

What is yours? Know this: we share our mental lives with the people we have failed to be, we learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like; our unlived life is not an escape into unreality, but longing for the experiences, the things and the people that are absent.

These paradoxical puzzling concepts arise from reading an eye-opening book by Adam Phillips – polymath, a writer of unmitigated pleasurable intelligence, aesthete and psychotherapist whose writing I find illuminating (although others find him the opposite) – though I’m not sure what my eyes have been opened to and I am still getting used to the light. The book is called Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life and the one thing I’m sure of in the unsteady world he posits – or am I sure? – is that it is the opposite of the simple self-help books that pour out daily in which the default position, the received idea, is to strive to fulfil our potential, to change ourselves, to be something else, something “better”. Where did we get our picture of this potential? The myth of our potential can make of our lives a perpetual falling-short, lures us into the future without us asking why such lures are required. Phillips instead points us towards things buried deep in our psyches.

Our unlived life is not an escape into unreality, but longing for the experiences, the things and the people that are absent.

The reason I’m confused but eager to learn more is that as far as I know, I lead the life I want. But since I am also endlessly frustrated about one thing or another – and live with the ensuing frustration – then surely something else obscure is going on, some buried feared thing, something I don’t want to or can’t (same difference) recognise and the result turns me into an addict. Or that is what I think. Astonishingly, he has a good word to say about frustration, which made me rethink rather crossly. For a start, it makes people real to us if only because they are the cause of it and frustration is at once both the source of our pleasure and the inspiration for our unlived lives. Addiction, he says, is unformulated frustration, frustration too simply met. Howzzat! Empirical experience tells me this is true. But I don’t know how to meet it in a complex way except by falling down dead. He once said (not in this book): “I’m interested in how the culture of consumer capitalism depends on the idea that we can’t bear frustration, so that every time we feel a bit restless or bored or irritable, we eat, say, or we shop.”

I am a 38-year-old woman and I have fallen passionately in love with a wonderful man. I leave my husband, tear the children away and go and live with him and lead an academic life. How can I accommodate that? With relief that it is an unlived life. “Falling in love, finding your passion,” says Phillips, “are attempts to locate, to represent what you unconsciously feel frustrated about, and by.” Hmmm. I don’t know how much of mine was unconscious.

Reading this involved, crammed book makes me feel topsy-turvy; for example, from this new viewpoint I think that the great gift in my life was that I was never made to feel special as child. Stop! Unpack that sentence! Is its inherent sadness a kind of sour grapes? Making the best of a bad job? An elegy? A statement of profound truth and acceptance? Or is it not inherently sad at all because I have converted childhood trauma to adult triumph? Who knows? Not me but it certainly allows me to understand that I am full of anger, vengeance and frustration and these suppressed feelings and emotions I relieve by various addictions. Oops! Yet I lead a “real” life that is full of satisfaction and joy. The word real here though is, of course, suspect!

Though Phillips doesn’t give advice on how to cure frustration – doesn’t give advice about anything (I should think he’d rather be boiled in oil) – his insights make me aware of the problems and thus perhaps a solution. For example, he points out that frustration suggests a future. But for me the most blinding thing is that if it is frustration we hate, it must be satisfaction that we hate even more. So if I get to the bottom of my frustration and get satisfaction what would happen? Would my life be changed? Phillips suggests we should stop trying to change our actual lives but there are times when change is surely beneficial. Not having an addiction would certainly make my life easier, which would be a change! If we can’t let ourselves feel our frustration, we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting and miss what might really be giving us pleasure. I’m still working that one out but my hand isn’t reaching for the ciggie and the food quite so swiftly at the moment, while I think on and face the frustration. It’s quite unpleasant though because I find how addicted I am and how full of anger or something akin to it and realise too how jealous I am that I am not writing full time, that I let life devour my parallel life.

The book is full of illuminating aperçus: “Greed is despair about pleasure.” (Put that in your pipe and smoke it!). Or “No child ever recovers from not having cured his parents.” Or “I remember a child telling me in a session … that the reason he wanted to be bigger was because he wouldn’t have to want to be bigger.” Change that word bigger to thinner and it’s what many women would say.

Wanting is what we do to survive and we want only what isn’t there.

“Because we are nothing special – on a par with ants and daffodils – it is the work of culture to make us feel special; just as parents need to make their children feel special to help them bear and bear with – and hopefully – enjoy their insignificance in the larger scheme of things,” he notes. “In this sense, growing up is always an undoing of what needed to be done: first, ideally we are made to feel special; then we are expected to enjoy a world in which we are not.” My growing up was the opposite of ideal in that I never felt special (how could you if you were one of seven?) though of course at a profound level I yearned for the love and space that would make me significant. So the special world I entered when I left Ireland (by choice, though at the time it seemed accidental), though ostensibly full of enjoyment, did seem a shadow world and the unlived life, the one I would have had if I had stayed in Ireland, was imaginarily real to me. Haunted me. We are obsessed by what is missing in our lives, and by what it is that sabotages the pleasures that we seek. The exemptions we suffer whether forced or chosen make us who we are. Wanting is what we do to survive and we want only what isn’t there. “What was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live,” Phillips notes. So we learn to live in the somewhere between the two lives – the ones we have and the ones we would like. “No one has ever had the adolescence they should have had. No one has ever taken enough of their chances, or had enough chances to take.” I feel I had great chances in the world and took them with both hands and led a full life but Phillips quotes Randall Jarrell: “The way we miss our lives is life.” I think though of Heaney’s lines: “The way we are living timorous or bold will have been our life.”

I think many of us live on the cusp of despair. We hardly dare look towards the future since it means mourning in advance for what our children and their children are going to have to endure. It is useless to try to live in the past, to call back yesterday (“Our wish to be understood is our most violent form of nostalgia”) and he writes revealingly about the malady of how, over time, a person may come to not recognise their feelings, to blank them out in order to survive: “I am cross. It threatens to spoil the relationship I depend on … I turn myself into a nice kind gentle person. In this psychic alchemy, this disappearing act I reappear as acceptable to others and therefore to myself. And what happens to the anger? It comes out as what are called ‘symptoms’, prevailing forms of unease.” Symptoms may be obscured communication but they often are the signifiers of impending illness. (On the other hand, Freud – and Phillips is very much a Freudian – claimed that people could also become ill when a wish is satisfied. Oh dear!)

The message – though he is not one for messages – seems simple enough but, like many simplicities, you have to cull and peel to get at it, to realise that the life not experienced, the one that we were prevented from living, has to be merged into the one you are experiencing here and now. We must make the most of the doubled life, make it as satisfactory and gratifying as possible. Knowing ourselves means simply knowing what we want to have. Phillips once said, “For me, all literature is self-help – or that’s one of the things it is – so I don’t at all mind if my books are read like that.” This is a self-help book at a profound level. So he would surely know that Wordsworth said it all in a few short and memorable lines: Not in Utopia, subterranean fields, / Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where! / But in the very world, which is the world / of all of us, – the place where in the end/ We find our happiness, or not at all!

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Writing Home, a selection of writing by Polly Devlin, published by Pimpernel Press, is out now. 

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