Raghav wonders how different his life could have been had he quit his corporate job 10 years ago to pursue his passion for the brush strokes and palettes.
Janet, rather guiltily, confides in her friend that she often imagines how her life may have been had her childhood sweetheart still been alive.
Sam occasionally worries that the life of a successful investment banker may have been her thing than quitting it to commit her time and life to her kids.
Yet, for any outsider and for the most part to themselves, their current life can seem like it couldn’t have gotten any better. Raghav is the Chief Marketing Officer at a reputed company with flexible work hours, challenging projects, and a loving family at home. Janet and her husband run a popular café in the Nilgiris town of Ooty. To share her love for food with people around has always been her dream. And to Sam, her two beautiful kids she calls pieces of her heart are growing up to become these industrious, curious, healthy teenagers while Sam also created quite a stirring presence online as a mom-influencer.
Nevertheless, the scents, images, and sounds of what life could have been like, if not for this, haunt them. And us.
The longing to know what we might have missed out along the road not taken isn’t exclusively reserved for the more significant decisions in life. It pervades even our day-to-day living in the guise of should I have bought the iPhone instead of the OnePlus, chosen the spacious home over the one closer to my workplace, opted for promotion & hike at my previous job than moving to the new one…so on and so forth. It definitely matters to understand the intention behind our desires for the unlived but that does not safeguard us from grieving for what could have been. Sometimes our nostalgia for the unlived comes from the need to validate our present choices, to know that the path we are on now is better than the one we left behind. Sometimes it is the fear of having chosen the wrong path that engulfs us when things get rough along this way. And a lot of times, it is simply monotony that leaves us craving for what isn’t. Either way, this article isn’t going to profess ‘how to be happy with what you’ve got’ or ‘how to build a life of your dreams’ . It is more of an attempt to acknowledge that the longing for the unlived life is very much human. So if anyone out there is berating themselves for not being happy with what they have got or have their guilt kicking in of a life not lived, it is important to know that you are not alone.
It would be a lie to believe that loss and the grief that follows can be extricated from our existence. And it is equally true that this grief of loss does not limit itself to people and the other tangibles but brings within its grasp even our imagined lives — the loss of an imagined love life, an imagined partner, an imagined career, an imagined lifestyle, and more. And to reject this grieving process with a rigid mask of happiness and joy would be doing ourselves a disservice. Even as we pretend we are feeling okay, under the mask, the grief pushes hard against the boundaries of its confinement to see the light of the day. And often, the only way to really deal with the grief is to let it bubble to the surface and allow it to gradually vaporize into non-existence or form a recognized part of our very being. In the darkness of its confinement, it only gnaws at your soul for identity & recognition.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the era that we live in is serving us nostalgia as if we are at a grand buffet. The variety of choices seems appetizing but what one forgets is that there is no having it all. You can’t stomach all that food and not feel nauseated. Yet, the picking and choosing leave us dissatisfied, constantly leaving us craving for that lasagna we couldn’t take a bite of. Worse is when you have to watch a dear friend delightfully enjoy the creamy lasagna even as your tummy is bursting from all the exquisite dishes you already had. Now that’s social media for you. With Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram and Youtube, you are bearing witness to all the different ways your own life could have panned out through other people’s lives and experiences, only making the grip of nostalgia tighter.
For me, Instagram can be that trigger. When I see the many lives I desired to live splash across someone else’s Insta stories, I wonder if I am doing life right. Ironically, someone else could be looking at mine and fantasizing about what my kind of life could look like for them. In all likelihood, you & I weren’t meant to live all those different lives that our friends, acquaintances & social media influencers are living. But the painful truth is, we’ll never know for sure.
When each of us chose the right or left turn at the fork in the road, we chose the joy of discovering what a certain path has in store for us. But at the same time, we also chose the grief of not knowing what all the other lives we left behind could have felt like. Now, there is a universal yet obvious truth in this realization, with every choice we make in life, we are cutting off a plethora of other choices that could have been ours too. Also equally universal is the fact that this conflict, in itself, is universal. We all unequivocally feel, think & yearn for the unlived a lot of times, even as we don’t openly agree to it. It’s just that the multitude of choices in the consumerist world and the widespread visibility into each other’s lives is only amplifying our awareness; awareness of not only who we have become but also who we chose not to be.