At the least, it’s an intriguing idea. Coming from the world of psychoanalysis, that is very rare indeed.
The source is Adam Phillips, one of the more engaging and provocative psychoanalysts thinking today. In his new book Missing Out Phillips meditates on the idea that our minds are constantly involved in what I would call a dialectical tension between what is and what might have been.
On the one side there’s the life we have; on the other there’s the life we wish we had had and the person we wish we had been.
We all know the experience. We have all pondered: what if this or that had not happened; what if this or that had happened. And then: what if we had been born in another century or if we had not been accepted to college or if we had joined the Navy or if we had married Peggy Sue… the list can be expanded at will… we would not have our lives and would not be who we are.
Do we, as Phillips seems to suggest, live with a constant and gnawing regret over the road not taken, the decision not made. If we do, how much time do we spend mewling over this possible lost past.
As a corollary, we should also ask whether we are who we are because of choices we made or because of chance occurrences.
If we follow Freud, we are who we are because we are playing out a role in a script we do not even know exists.
Then, the question becomes more complicated still. In principle, psychoanalytic patients undergo treatment in order to uncover or recover or restore their lost past. Whether it’s forgotten traumas or a bad upbringing, a psychoanalytic patient is supposed to be discovering the truth about his or her past.
If that is true, the life we are living, the one we think is real, the one in which we have a measure of self-esteem and a measure of happiness… must, by Freud’s lights, be a fraud.
In Freudian theory your truth is the life story you discover through psychoanalysis. The other one, the one you believe to be your truth is really one that you have been induced, by society, to believe is your own.
Was Freud right?
Look at it this way. Why do you think that a trauma, for example, or a bad decision or a misfortune reveals you truth? Were it not for Freud you would never imagine that you must integrate the sordid side of your past in your life story in order to become fully you.
It won’t make much sense to psychoanalysts but you do not need to be burdened by the past. Nothing requires you to give a trauma or an abuser power over your life.
If something bad has happened to you, you can define yourself as someone who deserved to have it happen and to act accordingly. Thereby you will have embraced it as your Freudian truth.
If you do not believe that it says anything about your character, you can also act as though it means nothing and does need to be part of who you really are.
A traumatized individual will live in a state of tension between the urge to return to the muck and the will to move forward. Still, it is better to act as though a trauma didn’t happen than to embrace it on the grounds that it did.
Phillips has identified a problem that inheres in the therapy culture. Or better, it is an occupational hazard for psychoanalysts. The field induces people to spend entirely too much time looking back at the past, whether it is a real past or a possible past that we missed.
Since Phillips likes to write aphoristically, reading him brings aphorisms to mind. Among my personal favorites is this one, from legendary golfer Ben Hogan:
The most important shot in golf is the next one.
Hogan is saying that if you belabor the last shot, if you ponder where the ball would be if you had hit it better or if it had not hit the rock in the fairway, you will lose focus on the next shot and are far more likely to shank the ball.
Charting out a path through a possible past is a very good way to avoid planning for a possible future.
Golf is funny that way. If you mind is elsewhere, if you are musing about what might have been, if you are not working on what might happen in your next shot, the game of golf will quickly bring you back down to earth.
That’s why people love golf. It’s an exercise in learning how to forget what might have been and to focus on what might be.