Thursday, August 6, 2020
Missing Out and the Anxiety of the Unlived Life
(A talk to the Northern Arizona Psychological Society 5/15/15)
I have noticed over the years of working with clients that much of what troubles them, “all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain” as Melville wrote in Moby Dick, is the lack of congruence between the life they are living and the life they believe they should be living. Freud would have called it the difference between the ego (Ich) and the ego-ideal (ich ideal), in other words, it is the difference between who one is and who one might have been, and may yet become. The me I fantasize about is a me, according to me, that I might well have become if only some of the things that I had experienced had been different, or if only I had made different (and the script often insists, better) choices. The fantasy me is what I call the unlived life. It is unlived because I want to believe it was once an option, and a part of me wants to believe it may still be possible. A significant motivation upon the part of the client entering therapy is to discover why the unlived life was not possible. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “The story of our lives becomes the story of the lives we were prevented from living” (Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life).
It is the unlived life that keeps us awake at night, by either losing ourselves in the projected fantasy of what it might be like to be living the life we are not able to live, or alternatively, the unlived life haunts us as a spectral delivery mechanism for anxiety: why don’t I feel loved, why don’t I feel safe, why don’t I feel special? Why can’t i feel satisfied? What would it be like to be able to satisfy what feels so unsatisfiable in our daily lives. Freud suggested that all anxiety is separation anxiety, particularly separation from the mother, but I think it is also the case that anxiety is created from a sense of being separated from oneself, a separation from one’s true and proper life. One might think that the psychoanalytic answer to separation is love.
The first experience of love is the love of oneself (no separation of self), secondly, the love of what one was (separation from self), and thirdly, we love what we would like to be, because if we could become what we would like to be, there is something of a successful reunification of self (Jacques Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954). The first three kinds of loving are ultimately narcissistic and creates a self enclosed world in which nothing is hidden, nothing is unlived, and consequently then, nothing is threatening. When we eventually begin to see some cracks in this self-contained world others, like mother, become objects capable of acting independently rather than acting as mere extensions of oneself, and another experience of love is discovered. Freud calls this love anlehnung, which is loving the mother who brings the nurturing and the father who protects, a love that is unsatisfyingly dependent.
But are these the only two options? Are narcissism and dependence our only choices? Jacques Lacan suggests that “Freud rejects this hypothesis, and reminds us of of the existence of repression, which has, in the end, a normalizing function. Repression proceeds from the ego and its ethical and cultural requirements [...] For the ego, the formation of an ideal would be the conditioning factor. This ideal is now the target of the self-love which was enjoyed in childhood by the true ego” (ibid, 132-3). The ego ideal becomes the target because in hitting that target we become special once again. And feeling special provides one with a feeling of indescribable satisfaction.
Being special is the peculiarly singular ambition of contemporary American culture, is it not? It is worth wondering though, “...what the need to be special stops us from being” (Phillips). Being special is, I think, another way of saying we don’t want for anything, anymore, and the best way to not want is to have enough money to buy whatever we will: we purchase the best home, the best technology, car, body, and the best love that money can buy. One is tormented by the things and experiences one has missed, obsessed by notion that missing out has sabotaged satisfaction.
When we look at ourselves in this way, it isn’t hard to see why Freud wanted to talk about pleasure seeking and the avoidance of pain as the organizing principles of life. How many times have we heard clients suggest that a life without pleasure is not worth living? Simply surviving life is nowhere near pleasurable enough, and even spiritual practices that nudge one toward asceticism are festooned with the trappings of materialism (at least they are here in the U.S.), if not of the literal comfortable, pleasurable variety, then materialism of the spiritual sort. As an aside, our spiritual disciplines foster the primacy of the unlived life by delaying the most “important” existence to a time after death or make a goal of enlightenment in such a way that only a very few, if any, can achieve it and thereby creating one more life one cannot live and may only experience in fantasy and self-reproach.
The entire point, it seems to me, of the unlived life is to provide pleasure by imagining a more complete satisfaction, and perhaps such imaginings or fantasies are even attempts at some kind of self cure. As Adam Phillips notes: “Our solutions tell us what our problems are.” Perhaps it is the unconscious wish that the unlived lives might somehow materialize in one’s mundane life and become real, and really lived, experiences. Perhaps these fantasies of a more satisfying life are ways to deal with a reality that leaves us very little wiggle room in terms of free will. Schopenhauer said, “A man may want what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” Perhaps it is only in the fantasy of the unlived life that we in fact are able to experience a truly free will.
Whatever one chooses to think about the idea of free will, one cannot but be aware that there is a gap, sometimes a yawning chasm, between what we want and what we have and that we can’t get around what we have in order to create what we want. This realization is essentially what Freud meant by “the Reality Principle.” And in some important ways, the unlived life tells us what is wrong with the life we are currently living; to put it clinically, what are our symptoms if the fantasy life is the solution? In a very general way, one might think that symptoms tend to cluster around anxiety and frustration, and this is particularly true of the gap between the lived and the unlived life.
`The anxiety and frustration one feels is about missing out, missing opportunities, missing crucial pieces of knowledge, missing the joke. Missing out means not getting it and not knowing; missing out means not belonging. And when we suffer from the anxiety of not belonging, we are once again with Freud in his notion of separation anxiety. Look at the way we are attached to, say, our smart phones. Has anyone’s phone buzzed with a missed call or a text message since I’ve been speaking? How hard was it to resist looking at the message or knowing who called? The technological umbilical is very, very short these days. We don’t want to miss out on anything.
Another reason so much anxiety accrues around separation is that children understand instinctively that should they be separated from or lost to their parents, their very survival is in doubt. Instinctively, children “know” they don’t have the resources to take care of themselves and to be abandoned is tantamount to a death sentence. Separation becomes paired with the idea that one is unloved and unwanted, a shame-filled being in search of some other, any other, with whom one may fuse in a narcissistic attempt at ensuring one’s own survival. Often in the unlived life, the conceit is that one is highly competent, successful, and loveable. In the unlived life, one has either achieved a complete satisfaction, or at least knows the way to it.
A foundational idea of psychoanalysis is that there is something unfeasible, unrealizable, or unworkable about the telling and the living of a contemporary, modern life, and psychoanalysis became a story about why people couldn’t speak honestly about their own lives, and about what it was they couldn’t speak about. In fact, what we suffer from, as Phillips writes, is biography. “[W]e need to cure ourselves of biography,” he says, “and our beliefs in it” (Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, 21). We all know the problems with our own biographies; we’ve all had the experience of being at a family reunion, a wake, a wedding, or some such thing telling stories about our own history when an older relative interrupts to say, “it didn’t happen that way at all!” One reason for this is that we must live our lives forward, while biography is constructed backwards.
Our biographies, our histories, are fictions; they have to be fictions since that is the only way to make a different future for ourselves or, conversely, justify the future we are living into. If one listens carefully in the therapeutic hour, the stories we hear are the stories of unmet needs, stories of what one wanted long ago, of what was missed, and what is wanted for the future. The stories we tell about our lives are usually, and unconsciously, meant to mislead--both others and ourselves. We are constantly trying to unknow what we already know about ourselves; we create the illusion of a life that makes sense (in either a positive or negative way) so that we won’t perish of the truth. In therapy, the mere clarification or chronologizing of biography is not the agent of change. Rather, it is the creation of a kind of intimacy within the therapeutic hour that allows clients, and ourselves, to realize and speak what is true about oneself. That kind of intimate honesty is never found in biography.
Often, people are haunted by their unlived lives, the lives they should have had, and the story of their lives becomes the story of what they have missed out on, and the idea that one is missing out can be paralyzing. One result may be that, fueled by the anxiety of missing out, one cannot commit to anyone or anything, and even if one does manage a commitment, one cannot stay faithful to it. Furthermore, the inability to tolerate missing out is really an inability to tolerate any form of frustration, and if one refuses to tolerate frustration, one will not tolerate satisfaction, either. A generalized greed begins to dominate one’s choices; a greed for sensation, for experience, for consolation, for regard drives one on until, like Terry Jones’ enormous glutton in the Python’s movie, The Meaning of Life, one simply explodes from surfeit. I think that if addiction is anything, it is frustration that’s too easily satisfied. When one is willing to wrestle with frustration and anxiety, rather than effortlessly ameliorating them by distraction, denial, pharmacology or the like, one is liable to discover strengths one never knew one possessed, or creativity in problem solving, and a novelty of thought one never knew one was capable of.
“In general it is also certainly true to say,” Freud writes in Contributions to the Psychology of Erotic Life, “that the psychical significance of a drive rises in proportion to its frustration.” In other words, the more frustrated we are in our wanting, the more we value and desire the absent object. Freud is not simply counseling us on the pleasures of self-restraint or a kind of ascetic denial (yet there is undeniably pleasure in pain), but he is speaking to the idea that frustration is the vehicle for illuminating our desires, and necessarily then, illuminating the conditions for our satisfaction. What we might call therapeutic change.
But we don't want to change, change is not simply being something at one moment and then deciding to be something else the next. It is a painfully ambivalent process, and it goes on far too long for our tastes, alternating us between what we were and what we will become, suspending us between what we are and what we want to be. W.H. Auden wrote: We would rather be ruined than change/ We would rather die in our dread/ Than climb upon the cross of the moment/ and let our illusions die.
The 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant highlighted this alternating psychic movement in his descriptions of encounters with what he called the sublime. But the sublime is not a product of psyche; it is itself a totality which exists outside of psyche and to which psyche may be exposed. As I understand him, Kant argued that the sublime has at least two dimensions, one of magnitude and the other of force. In other words, when confronted with the sublime, the experience is so big, so immense, that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around it; it is incomprehensible. In addition to its incomprehensibility, there is the added and intense feeling of being overwhelmed in its presence and one’s physical and emotional integrity feels threatened by an encounter with the sublime.
What makes the sublime even more disturbing is the feeling of undeniable pleasure in the face of the apparent “counter-purposiveness,” as Kant named it, and which one experiences as the disorganizing, distressing, and disturbing effect upon cognition, emotion, and consciousness in general. One would expect such an encounter to be painful, but instead the sublime encounter evokes pleasure and an aesthetic experience one retrospectively understands to contain a sublime beauty.
Perhaps it is, in fact, the unlived life that, improperly regarded, threatens to trivialize or domesticate the sublime, and constellates as a singular image of satisfaction that serves ultimately to trivialize and domesticate an ungovernable and unfathomable reality. The danger of the unlived life is that we remain unaware and unconscious of the embedded political, theological, social, and psychological agendas buried so deep within the lives we must live that we are more likely to shackle rather than free ourselves, more apt to obscure than illuminate, more likely to limit than expand our lives. As Freud insists, what we see is determined by what we cannot see, or by what we refuse to see.
To accomplish the knowing of what we do not want to know provokes and invites disturbance and discomfiture, it demands from us a willingness to allow our senses to incorporate something that initially appears insensible. But there is something else going on in one’s experience of the sublime. One’s own ideas and intuitions (both conscious and unconscious ideas of one’s own reason, which Kant suggests interact with the sublime, if not actually constituting it) are brought to bear on the experience and eventually result in a harmony of reason with the sublime. With this move, the sublime becomes “purposive” rather than “counter-purposive” and creates a feeling of deep, acute pleasure. The initially disturbing experience of the sublime is now matched by a higher pleasure rising from the newly discovered purposiveness, and it persuades us, as the poet Shelley noted, to forsake the easy for the harder pleasures. Of course, one can’t craft the sublime encounter into a continuous state of being. The purposive and counterpurposive states are alternating continually and neither of them wins out, which is to say that experiencing the sublime subjects one to a disturbing, rapid alternation of feelings and perceptual states.
Sometimes, people understand the gap between the unlived life and the lived life, and the frequent alternation between them to which we are subjected, as a kind of hell. And if there is a hell, this is as good a definition of it as any, for hell is not to be found in some distant place, but exists here and now, formed by all of us together. It seems to me there are only a few ways out of hell; one is common and used by many: fail to attend to the hell and become so much a part of it that one no longer sees it. An alternative way, a challenging path to be sure, demands that one live seeking out the sublime encounter, a way of living and thinking that places one, more often than not, uncomfortably outside of one’s pleasingly comfortable beliefs. This way out of hell requires one to disregard easy pleasure and instead be determined to recognize who and what voices, in the midst of hell are not hell, and subjecting them to rigorous examination helping them to be recognized and abide, creating a space for them and in so doing, experience marvelous hopes, extraordinary insights, and sublime pleasures, rendered all the more marvelous for their difficult acquisition.
Forsaking the easy pleasures of the unlived life for the harder pleasures of living the life one has is a difficult challenge: one must value both equally and move between and among the lived and unlived lives because much of living is the task of embodying the imaginal. A significant part of understanding love, for instance, happens imaginally and then must be, through trial and error, embodied between and among people in the material world. The purpose of living, as I see it at least, is to make what is implicit in imagination explicit in living; this is the gift the unlived life offers us.