This essay by Joshua Rothman has a lot to say about “unlived lives,” lives we think we might have, or could have, lived.
We have unlived lives for all sorts of reasons: because we make choices; because society constrains us; because events force our hand; most of all, because we are singular individuals, becoming more so with time. “While growth realizes, it narrows,” [Andrew H.] Miller writes. “Plural possibilities simmer down.” This is painful, but it’s an odd kind of pain—hypothetical, paradoxical. Even as we regret who we haven’t become, we value who we are. We seem to find meaning in what’s never happened. Our self-portraits use a lot of negative space.
Miller’s point has been made more vividly by Robert Nozick in his book Philosophical Explanations:
The problem of meaning is created by limits, by being just this, by being merely this. The young feel this less strongly. Although they would agree, if they thought about it, that they will realize only some of the (feasible) possibilities before them, none of these various possibilities is yet excluded in their minds. The young live in each of the futures open to them. The poignancy of growing older does not lie in one’s particular path being less satisfying or good than it promised earlier to be — the path may turn out to be all one thought. It lies in traveling only one (or two, or three) of those paths. Economists speak of the opportunity cost of something as the value of the best alternative foregone for it. For adults, strangely, the opportunity cost of our lives appears to us to be the value of all the foregone alternatives summed together, not merely the best other one. When all the possibilities were yet still before us, it felt as if we would do them all.
But what Rothman’s essay doesn’t mention is how we might, after reflecting on lives we didn’t get, live the one that has actually been given to us.
Because I think that matters, when I have, over the years, shared Nozick’s brilliant paragraph with my students, I have always juxtaposed it to this one from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:
We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a telos — or of a variety of ends or goals — towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present. Unpredictability and teleology therefore coexist as part of our lives; like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form which projects itself towards our future. Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character. If the narrative of our individual and social lives is to continue intelligibly — and either type of narrative may lapse into unintelligibility — it is always both the case that there are constraints on how the story may continue and that within those constraints there are indefinitely many ways that it can continue.
Emphasis mine. There is considerably more interest, and infinitely more value, in considering how out story might best continue than in speculating about what might have been.