Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 204 pages ($25). Yes, Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst but he is also an English professor at the University of York across the pond. That’s why he has long written such elegant and readable books. That’s why these are the graceful opening sentences of the prologue to this one: “The unexamined life is surely worth living but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad.”
It is also, Phillips argues, what helps define us, whether it’s the tryout with the Red Sox we were too scared to show up for (thereby eliminating the Hall of Fame second baseman’s career we were certain to have) or the knockout red-haired girl in Earth Science we never asked out (thereby depriving ourselves of carnal bliss, indeed the perfect ensuing 40-year marriage).
So we “learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.” Our “double lives,” then, are Phillips’ subject – our mutual lives and the “parallel life (or lives) that never actually happened, that we lived in our minds, the wished-for life (or lives): the risks untaken and the opportunities avoided or unprovided. We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us: but for reason … they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becoming the story of our lives.”
Here, then, is a wise and uncommonly well-written book full of life and literature about being haunted by our own potential, a book about our equipoise with the unavoidable frustrations of our “shadow life.”
Whatever Dr. Phil might pretend to do in the taco stand he runs that always seems just a step ahead of God’s own health department, Adam Phillips is actually doing in a four-star restaurant.
– Jeff Simon