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Psychoanalyist Adam Phillips roots his observations on the human condition – sometimes elliptical, always intriguing – on his four-day-a-week practice. (Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian)
Psychoanalyist Adam Phillips roots his observations on the human condition – sometimes elliptical, always intriguing – on his four-day-a-week practice. (Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian)

If only: How our lives not lived make the lives we do live richer Add to ...

What am I missing out on? Is there a life I should be living, instead of this one? How can I live with the gulf between what is, and what might be? What is my neighbour having for dinner – damn, it smells good. Is that what I should be having?

These preoccupations, expressed in an elegantly enigmatic way, are the subject of British psychoanalyst and philosopher Adam Phillips’s new book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. Mr. Phillips has made a name for himself with a series of probing, playful, elliptical books – including On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored and Monogamy – that dart between Freud and Shakespeare, Melanie Klein and John Ashbery.

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He spoke to The Globe and Mail from the office in London, where he sees patients four days a week and writes on the fifth (he is also a visiting professor of English literature at the University of York in Britain). He has a telephone but no e-mail, which makes him the object of some envy.

One of the most profound ideas in your book is summed up by this line: “We think we know more about the experiences we don’t have than the ones we do.” Are lives not lived richer than the lives we do live?

I was very aware, over long periods in clinical work, how much people talk about experiences that they haven’t had. And how much people feel things like, “If only my wife would do X, Y and Z, our lives would be fine” … “If only I had this job, such and such would happen.” People speak with such amazing passion and vigour about experiences they’ve never had. That seems to me to be very, very interesting and important. There’s a sense in which we spend a lot of the time living fantasy lives and that this actually deprives us of the pleasures of reality.

It’s almost as if our “other” life is a valve in some way, an escape hatch…

Yes, almost as though all these regrets – these thoughts of things we haven’t done – are a bolthole, a refuge, a place you can go to console yourself from disappointment.

Can we enjoy that fantasy life, though, if we don’t necessarily expect it to become reality

Yes, but there’s a risk of becoming addicted to it, and becoming out of touch with reality. And if you are out of touch with reality, you can’t have any real exchange, and only real exchange is nourishing. You can sit there and think about what you’d love to have for supper, but if you don’t actually go and get supper, you won’t be satisfied.

So you end up with a Walter Mitty life.

Yes, a more Walter Mitty life than we are often aware of.

You spend some time reflecting on Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse, which famously begins with a line about how our parents screw us up. “They may not mean to, but they do. … Man hands on misery to man./ It deepens like a coastal shelf./ Get out as early as you can,/ And don’t have any kids yourself.” Why is this poem so important?

It’s a very powerful, plain poem that raises interesting questions: about being a child, leaving home, and having children. Having children is – consciously, unconsciously – bound up with one’s experience of being a child. Both are about discovering what’s possible and what we will not be able to have. And why we have children is puzzling, I think, for a lot of people.

Both children and the sexuality that produces them are powerfully about the lived versus the unlived life.

We think we know much more now about other people’s sexuality than we ever have, but really, as you say, it’s the great mystery

Try telling a child “the facts of life.” What you leave out is as essential as what what you include. The facts of life are by no means the whole story.

The fact that you might get your heart broken, for instance.

Yes. And you might have longings for the impossible. I mean, all of Western culture is about this.

You talk about Larkin’s assumption that his life, or a life, would be better without children. But how could you ever know? How can anyone ever know?

It’s a very vivid version of speculation about longing. Because you literally can’t know, and, of course, once you do know, you can’t go back.

Is there also a problem with thinking too much about what we want – about who we are? You seem to make a claim for the limits of self-knowledge. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that there are some things we can’t know about ourselves

I don’t want to say self-knowledge is useless. But we need to know when self-knowledge is genuinely useful and when it isn’t. There are some situations where the struggle to “know” about an experience is a distraction from the experience itself.

That makes me think of my British grandmother-in-law, who used to say to me, if I offered her a bite of cake or something, “I can admire without coveting.” It seems to me that now we live in a particularly covetous time – not only do we worry about the lives we haven’t lived, but the lives other people live (or the lives we think they’re living).

Consumer capitalism encourages us to think of ourselves in terms of what we want to have, to own, to possess – as though that’s all there is to self-knowledge. And affluence also means that we know so much more about what people have and about their lives. And it’s almost as if the more we know about other lives the more we feel excluded from them, paradoxically. Your grandmother-in-law’s line is fabulous. It’s very much about being able to appreciate things – coveting stops that from happening.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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