The Life You Did Not Have 

The benefits and pitfalls of pondering our unled lives.

Posted Dec 31, 2020

In quiet moments, sitting with my husband at night with warm candlelight and a cup of tea, our conversation might just drift to a land of alternative lives. Who might we have become under different circumstances? How would we have turned out if we had not moved during childhood when all familiarity was lost at once? What if my mother had married the adoring atheist instead of the man with the “correct” religion who ended up a hater? What if I had decided to become a theoretical physicist to help solve the puzzle of our existence?

Pondering alternative lives seems oddly indulgent, a luxury of sorts that might never cross our minds when chopping wood or tending to toddlers. It felt like a private, guilty pleasure, until I read Joshua Rothman’s article “In Another Life,” recently published in The New Yorker .1 Apparently, we are in good company, as many of us pass our time pondering the lives that never happened but could have happened. Modern life allows us to make choices over practically everything, which spurs fantastic preoccupations, be they laden with longing, regret or amusement. But does the fascination with our unlived lives, the “ladders unclimbed” as Rothman put it, make us happy?

Different people have different answers to this question. Practitioners of mindfulness might see “what if” scenarios as being removed from reality and that we ought to refocus our attention on the here and now. Andrew H. Miller, who wrote the book “On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives.” Miller suggests lingering in our imagination and trying to find out what figments of our imagination say about the lives we live. Out of the shadows of what might have been might emerge the person we truly are. I suppose that Miller believes in the transformational power of insight as a result of actively moving around cognition as opposed to insight that emerges when we open our hearts to our reality, however bland, boring, or painful this reality may be.

Miller’s idea of engaging in a dialogue with our unlived lives sounds much like a Gestalt Therapy exercise that has us imagine a person, a feeling, an object or fragment of our dreams in an empty chair before us. We would then engage in a dialogue with our concoction, which would bring up previously unknown aspects of ourselves. Ironically, this Gestalt exercise is done very mindfully, with no falling back onto old stories or memories. Looking at our unlived lives can therefore be done in the here and now, which, incidentally, is the only time and place anything can be done at all. 

To ponder or not to ponder, this is the question. I, a practitioner of mindfulness, love to ponder. It is not to be confused with worrying about the future. (If you do, please read “What, You Worry?”) Neither is it wallowing about things I cannot change, such as the past. Happiness to me is “Loving your Life” and engaging fully with this reality. This type of happiness includes tears and the shadow of our existential pain and hope. It is good to know who we are and struggle with uncomfortable truths of bad choices, trauma, and bad luck. It is good to cry and express our longing.

Thinking of a time when nothing was set and everything seemingly possible is similar to the “beginner’s mind” in Zen Buddhism. Beginner’s mind is an open-mindedness, an eagerness, and lack of preconception as we study a subject, no matter how learned we are. It is the type of mind that beginners have. As we sense potential with no strings attached, we somehow become young and vivacious.

As long as the exercise of imagining our lives we did not have but could have had increases our sense of our current potential, it will make us feel more alive and thus happy. On the other hand, we might use this exercise to reject our responsibility for our lives from here on. If all we do is escape even more from the reality of our current potential, we will live duller and less engaged lives for it.

One more thought: Regardless of what choices you made and what venues you took, you would still breathe in and out like all humans do. You would go to the bathroom when nature calls. You would suffer failures and ponder about other lives you could have had. Happiness is less about content and more about your sense of interconnectedness, a relatedness you can learn with both Western and Eastern thought. Probability or merely pondering probability is not this sense. 

With that said, may you encounter your young and open heart as you ponder your life. May you use your insight into “what if” as a way to return to the mind full of possibilities in the here and now. 

© 2020 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.


1) Joshua Rothman (2020). In Another Life: Making sense of who we might have been. The New Yorker, December 21, 2020, p. 69-73.