And yet the ways we miss in our lives are life.
—Randall Jarrell

At a recent retreat for executives and professionals transitioning from retirement into a next contribution or career, I asked them to write down the first response that came to mind for a question. The notion of writing something immediately ensures an emotional response, a right brain reaction, before being processed by the left, logical, reasoning brain.

I asked, “What is your unlived life?”

These accomplished people, paragons of success in the world’s eyes, were each astonished to recognize that they had an unlived aspect of their lives that was either unrecognized, or, at most, only residing in their peripheral vision.

These parallel lives include the conscious life that we live, and the unlived life, the one that we might yet have or feel that we should or could have. This unlived life may be an elegy of unrequited desires, unmet needs, or sacrificed goals.

The unlived life nevertheless occupies a portion of our mental life. These fantasies and longings may be for the people, experiences, or things that are absent, what we feel we’re missing out on, or what we could be doing but for some reason are not.

In the film, Sliding Doors, parallel lives portray an alternate reality from a one-second nodal point. The protagonist enters the train, barely making it before the door closes. Then, an alternate story unfolds in which she is one second too late, the door closes, and she misses the train. From that point on, the two stories are parallel but immensely different for a lifetime.

We may live somewhere between the life we have and the life we would have had. These dual stories constructed by us each have their own story arc, their own drama, their own dynamics.

The road not taken holds the myth of our potential, the shadow inevitably bumping up against the recognition of what might have been. We may then regret and resent, grieve and let go, fantasize and remain hopeful, or plan and realize. Or all of the above.

Both our lived and our unlived lives make us who we are.