The Unlived Life

As I’m sure many of you have been (and SHOULD BE), I’ve been watching the wonderful series ‘The Crown’ over the last week. As a Brit who feels fairly ambivalent about the monarchy most of the time, it’s incredible how some patriotic pomp can bring a tear to my eye, like some kind of collective memory. Perhaps they’re tears for some bygone age of Britishness, perhaps out of a national pride which feels all too rare these days. In one of this series’ best episodes, Aberfan, it was simple grief and horror at the terrible tragedy portrayed. Yet I think what gets me most is the simple fact that it is a drama about family. About a family in an extraordinary situation, but a family none-the-less.

One of the moments that stood out for me as I have been watching was when the Queen spoke of her dreams of the ‘unlived life’. It’s been an ongoing theme of the show that these people are stopped from being who they could otherwise be by the situation they find themselves in. Yes, they have extraordinary privilege, but also overwhelming pressure. The pressure to be completely visible and yet completely unavailable. To have no opinions and no slip-ups. Ever.

For the Queen, it is the simple dream of an unlived life as a horse-breeder. For Prince Charles, to be free of the pressure and expectation of waiting for his mother to die, and to be able to marry the woman he loves. For Princess Margaret, it’s simply to find personal happiness.

This theme of the unlived life struck me as it’s something I think we all feel. We all dwell on the roads not taken, the choices we might have made. That feeling of ‘everything would be better if…’

Perhaps a difference for the Windsors is that there is no way out for them. For us, these feelings often take the form of regrets. We always wonder if there’s a way to change our situation, to rectify mistakes. Of course, as we are not under the incredible pressure the characters in The Crown face, there’s a sense in which we always can.

Not that I’m saying we should live a life full of regrets. Not at all. I’m just noticing something about my thinking and about our culture, especially as I seem to have reached the end of any predetermined path. We tend to obsess about which way is the right way. We wonder whether there’s some abandoned path which would have been happier, more successful or more fulfilling. I think this robs me of contentment where I am, just as it robs happiness from some of the characters in The Crown.

What’s the answer? We’re not stuck in our situation like the royals. We can make changes and, when something is making us unhappy, make a course correction. But at the same time, I think we can choose to be happy where we are. I think we need to. For dwelling on roads not taken is an invariably destructive course. A course that will lead us to view our lives now as a poorer reflection of some other reality. When really, we need to see the beauty and wonder around us to keep going.

We need to recognise the ways in which this is the best of all possible lives. We need to try to be the best versions of ourselves. Or else we’ll be tipped, flailing, into the uncertainty of never-knowing, always looking for the better option.

So be sure to watch this wonderful show, but remember to recognise and appreciate the ways in which you are living, for want of a better phrase, your best life right now.

Breakfast with Holly

“You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”

You know the situation, we’ve all been there.

You’ve just been let out of the police station on suspicion of passing messages from a convicted mobster in jail, but rather than staying safely put you decide to take a flight to Rio with the ticket your Brazilian not-quite-fiance gave you, even though your not-quite-fiance has just broken it off, owing to the aforementioned crime. Hmmm.

Not really the most universal of experiences is it?

This is one of the climactic scenes of the classic film version of Truman Copote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ A film, that for me, has always been overshadowed by the undeniably iconic performance Audrey Hepburn gives as Holly Golightly. When I recently decided to watch the film for the first time, pretty much on a whim, I was expecting an experience of style over substance, really just interested in ticking the film off my list. I was pleasantly surprised therefore when I was struck by the timeliness of the film and the thoughtful questions it poses about how we view our lives and relationships.

If you don’t know the film, a brief summary of the plot is as follows. Holly Golightly is a good time girl living in New York, ‘a phony’ perhaps but a good one. She parties the week away in her sparsely furnished flat, with an adopted stray cat named ‘cat’ (because why should she name a cat that she doesn’t own?) The plot revolves around her pursuit of rich suitors, with the aim of being able to provide for her younger brother Fred who is about to get out the army. It is also about her life intersecting with her neighbour, writer, kept man and possible gigolo, Paul Varjak.

What struck me most when watching the film is just how modern the story seemed. When I say modern, I mean how relevant the questions it poses are. While we may not have the glamour and charm of Audrey Hepburn, we all face questions about the future. We all have to think about how we view ourselves and our relationships. Holly is confronted with her fear of being caged, changed against her will, by entering into a loving relationship. She is held back by her fear in a way that so many in my generation seem to be all the time, myself included.

We look to the future and see bright possibilities, if not rich suitors then new jobs and relationships we might gain. We feel that our lives have not really started, extending adolescence well into our thirties, always looking for that opportunity that will make us suddenly truly ‘grown up.’ We complain about the mundanities of ‘adulting,’ seeking to be wild and crazy to avoid responsibility, while also having a desire for stability and a longing for ‘normality’ in one form or another. We fear making the wrong decision, anticipating future regrets before we’ve even done anything.

Like Holly, we are presented with a dizzying array of entertainments and distractions, an endless stream of possibilities for our future. Like moths fluttering between flames, we are drawn hither and thither by the different future lives and future selves we might have or become.

In my case, I know that I am torn between desires for my future. Desires for relationships, for home, for dreamed of careers and wealth, and for stability. I often find myself thinking thoughts along the line of ‘when will my life begin?’ The decision about where to live has taken up a lot of my thinking, as I know that my instinct is often to move on, looking for new places and experiences. This desire is tempered by another thought along the lines of ‘staying is good.’ I worry about making the wrong decision and fear the consequences in a way that is honestly irrational.

Holly Golightly seems to have a similar struggle at the heart of her character; stay or keep running. Commit or flit away. In her case, it takes a decisive intervention for her to see that staying put might be the best decision, for her to see that she can stay and still be the joyful, fun-loving person she has been for the whole film. In her case, she also sees that a loving relationship doesn’t have to be a cage. That she can be free and honest with another in a way she never could be with her rich suitors. A danger of always moving on to the next thing is that our relationships become increasingly shallow.

All these swirling ideas, dreams and goals that we experience all the time can become, like they did for Holly, a cage we build for ourselves. We can end up tripping up as we stumble from one thing to the next. We nave no roots or even fear becoming too attached to where we are. While holding out bright hopes for our futures we are actually overcome with fear of failing. Of making the wrong choice.

Like Holly, I am glad to have people around me (though not currently any writer/gigolos) who tell it like it is. Who see me and my dreams, encouraging and cautioning me. Pushing me to stay, pushing me to go, reminding me of the bigger picture. That is what Holly needed and it’s what we all need.

We are a generation brought up to believe we can do anything, be anybody, see everything. Yet we are also a generation with unprecedented levels of anxiety for ourselves and for the future. We need people in our lives who can put this self-belief and this fear into perspective, helping us to live lives free from fear.

We need to remember that making ‘sensible decisions’ can be joyful and freeing, just as making crazy choices can be liberating and exhilarating. We should make sure that we have people around us who can wisely push in either direction.

The (Late) Breakfast Club

Were you a horrid teenager? You know the drill – grunting, drinking, mono-syllabic moaning, messing up your room, generally being a stereotype. Well, I think I missed most of these things in my teenage years (maybe my parents disagree?) but I have had a growing appreciation of the delights of being a teenager recently. Maybe this is further evidence of my refusal to actually grow up and I’m sure it’s rather rose-tinted as well, yet I have been enjoying nostalgically dipping my toes into being a ‘teenager’ again.

I hope you have had the joy of watching classic ‘teen movies.’ Not sparkly-vampire infested ones, but classic, quotable, bad-hair featuring ones. Movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Juno and Clueless. There’s something about the boundless opportunity and optimism of the characters, even when they are forced to spend a whole Saturday in detention, that seems to me to be the thing I miss about teenager-hood. The feeling that the world really is your¬†oyster and that any kind of creative, random, unexpected thing could happen. Too often, this feeling is drowned out in me by jaded, perfunctory, grown-up-ness.

My renewed youth has also been fed by teen-fiction. Yes, that’s right. Sounds terrible doesn’t it. But when I think that I was eagerly awaiting the last Harry Potter book or two well into my twenties it’s not all that surprising. I was totally gripped by The Hunger Games trilogy, loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower and, damn it, was holding back tears reading The Fault in our Stars. There’s something about the intensity of feeling, the ‘universe is centred around me and how I feel right now’ perspective of these characters, as well as the ‘this friendship will never be the same again’ sadness,¬†that makes these books so appealing in many ways. Or maybe just easier to read.

As I think about the future and the possibilities before me, are they really less vast than those I imagined (or not) when I was an actual teenager? Is it not a positive thing to seek to enjoy every moment, eager to await each surprise, rather than dreading the next hiccup? If nothing else, this teenage flashback has reminded me that God has been faithful to me up to now, so much more than I could have expected. Whatever is to come, I look forward to enjoying his goodness and the gifts, whether as big as a new job or a child, or as small as a sunny day and an ice lolly, that he generously gives. And when it’s hard, it will be OK, because time goes on and he is faithful.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris Bueller

Ferris-Buellers-Day-Off-09