I’ve been thinking about this Joshua Rothman essay about our “unlived lives” ever since Alan Jacobs linked to it. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that I’m now a couple years deep into my 30s, and the 30s feel (so far) as if they are the quintessential “what if” decade. I am far enough now from adolescence and the open road of the college years to see what could have gone differently. I was talking to a dear friend just last night, whose post-seminary life has not at all followed the script he thought it would. He’s faithful and happy, but I could hear in his voice—not regret, exactly, but perhaps sobriety, a lingering, ambient wonderment at the difference between the road he thought he’d been on and the one he ended up traveling.
I don’t know if Christians enjoy talking about this. I wonder if there is a subtle guilt for believers in probing our unlived lives, as if the realization that they exist are an expression of ingratitude to God or discontent with his care. Obviously those feelings are possible, and we all know one or two people who fell into the pit self-oriented bitterness and never really got out. That’s real, and dangerous. But might it also be dangerous to assume that God’s sovereign goodness over our lives is never to be looked at any angle other than the present? God’s providence does not mean that our choices add up to zero or that there is no good use in contemplating the paths we took when more options were before us.
In fact, it’s not exactly a secret that being unable to come to terms with one’s life in a meaningful way tends to open the door for some destructive aftermath. I’m reminded of a very helpful observation from Russell Moore, coming from his years of pastoral and counseling experience:
A common theme I have found in adulterous affairs is that the one cheating is almost always seeking to recapture the feeling of adolescence or young adulthood. For a short period of time, the person is swept up in the drama of “I love you; do you love me” romance, without all the burdens of who is picking up Chloe from school or what day to put the recycling bin out at the curb or how to budget for the mortgage. The secret lover seems to make the married person feel young or “alive” again, until everything comes crashing down. The person is usually not looking for a sexual experience but for an alternative universe, one in which he or she made different choices.
I felt the truth of this observation a few months ago when Carl Lentz, former pastor of Hillsong Church in New York, was fired for adultery. Illicit sex, even among ministers, is sadly unremarkable. What stood out more about the whole story was that Lentz almost immediately connected the affair to his “burnout” and exhaustion in his ministry, as if the adultery were more about rewriting the script of his life than sexual pleasure. Remember that story a few years ago about the extramarital hookup app Ashely Madison? The tagline of the website (which was hacked and its clients, including “family values” activists, exposed) was, “Life is short…have an affair.” Those who seek to profit from adultery know that the short, often dissatisfying nature of daily life is the spark a wildfire needs.
But it’s not just extramarital affairs. Our unlived lives can manifest themselves in all sorts of replacement-level habits and experiences. I’m beginning to suspect that in my own life my use of social media, especially Twitter, has much to do with a sense of compensation for a lack of meaningful, challenging interpersonal relationships. I go to Twitter to experience a digital version of the conversations that I don’t have offline. I think about Lewis and Tolkien and the Inklings, a group of likeminded peers who cultivated over many years a warm intimacy that stretched them spiritually and intellectually. Life if the 21st century seems to be set up to make such a gathering of men my age almost impossible; even churches typically think of men’s gatherings as primarily opportunities to be taught and/or rebuked (this is why, in many church cultures, men receive accountability while women receive encouragement and support).
When the values of society are set up to prioritize nonstop efficiency and “productivity,” and then afterwards ruthlessly curated and isolating forms of entertainment, a concept ike Twitter—where people gather to merely talk—feels almost quaint. Social media, at least in its better moments, feels like a paean to that “unlived life” of close knit relationship. We know in our hearts that social media is not true community, which is why we’ve spent a year of pandemic lockdown dangerously depressed and anxious. How many people are on social media obsessively not because they’ve never experienced actual community, but because they have, and because the older they got, the more the people and places disappeared, leaving a hole that only social media apps even pretended to fill?
Even given the dangers, I think Christians ought to be thoughtful about unlived lives. To know that our lives could have been different, that other choices could have been made and other paths taken, can evoke something better than nostalgia. There’s a serious gratitude that wells up in the corners of one’s heart when you consider how the people, places, and tasks that you now love were given to you through a series of events over which you exercised only the most minuscule forms of control. If my pastor father had taken a different church when I was 14, or if we had not moved that year at all, it’s almost certain I never would have met my wife. Who else would I have met or fallen in love with? Who knows, but the point is, those unlived lives apart from Emily are not the sweet, tender, rich reality I have now. To ask whether a different life would have been better is to impose my current definition of “better” onto the past. But I only know what words like “better” mean to me because of the life I actually lived.
To meditate on our unlived lives—to meditate well—is to understand just how un-shaped we are without the elements of life that we don’t necessarily choose. And what is true of our past is equally true of the present and future. Where we are right now and with whom we are right now are molding and shaping us, and all at the mercy of a God who promises only a fate of good for those who love him.