British psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, must have had enough of writing about life as we actually live it. He’s the author of On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored; Flirtation, etc. Now, he’s come out with a book that explores the life we have not lived, the effect of what we believe could’ve been. In the process of examining our fantasies, he illuminates reality.
The book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, is written in non-technical language, but don’t attempt the book if you’re not up on Shakespeare. He relies far too much on the Bard’s tragic heroes to provide us with examples.
Let me attempt to summarize his main points without resorting to King Lear.
I’m hungry. If I have nothing to eat close at hand, I have a choice. I can work this frustration and use my hunger to motivate myself to score a meal. Getting satisfaction might be as easy as driving to McDonalds or as hard as preparing beef bourguignon. The harder it is, the more I’m going to need my imagination. The more I’ll have to tolerate frustration and hazard the rigors and risks of desire. I’ll have to be clever. Successful people tend to be flexible. If they have no burgundy in their wine rack, they settle for beef stew.
If I can’t eat, the other choice is to fantasize about a delicious meal. This can only take me so far, however. One cannot sustain life on fantasies.
It turns out these fantasies bedevil us in other ways that we never would’ve imagined. We can see this clearly in the phenomena of craving. When I crave beef bourguignon, I form a picture of myself eating it. The rich browns, the pungent smells, the complex tastes become almost real to me. My mouth waters. In this picture, I’m an omnipotent, satiated hedonist. In obtaining the beef bourguignon, in my fantasies I leap over obstacles and evade frustration, rather than modifying it. I replace uncertainty with certainty. I’m triumphant. This triumph is a form of magic. The original hunger is still there, there is only an illusion of triumph over it. I enact a childish view of what it means to be satisfied. I seem to triumph over my need for food.
The problem is, the more I crave beef bourguignon, the less I’ll be satisfied with anything else. I may not even enjoy the bourguignon, if I get it, because the actual dish can never compete with my fantasy of it, except for the fact that I can actually eat it.
I think I know more about the experiences I don’t have, my fantasies, than I know about the experiences I do have, the reality of hunger and cooking. The only time I entertain doubts about my craving, they tends to be about whether we can get the beef bourguignon, not about the nature of the satisfaction.
Craving begins as a flight from wanting, but it makes the wanting all the more problematic. Craving steals my hunger and pre-empts it with a ready-made, uncompromisable solution. The solution to hunger becomes more of a problem than hunger, itself.
I could go on, but I’m getting hungry.