The Unlived Life

Jung said that the greatest burden of a child is that of carrying “the unlived life of the parent,” that is, the myths, the fantasies, and especially the regrets which the parents project, and which the child observes, and absorbs.

We obediently and unconsciously attempt to live out the myths and fantasies for those who placed them into us, and try to compensate for their regrets. We follow our programming. Likewise, our children are conditioned by us, by what they observe in the way we live our lives. What is important, what is acceptable, what we value, what we could have been, what we are missing out on, what we regret.

Would you be able to take out a sheet of paper and write about the “unlived lives” of your parents? Would you then be able to look over that paper and see how you, throughout your own life, have been repeating their patterns, or perhaps living in perpetual compensation for them, which, as James Hollis says, “though it may be productive for me and others, shackles me to the consequences of someone else’s life”?

If you do see these influences at work in your life, you may be at that stage where you begin to question all the dogma, all the “shoulds” and “oughts”, the “rights” and “wrongs” recorded in your Book of Rules throughout your upbringing (or your domestication, as Miguel Ruiz calls it). This awakening usually occurs somewhere between one’s late 20s and mid 50s, and is often associated with what is commonly called the “midlife crisis.”

It is during this period that we begin to see the life we’ve lived up to that point as having been guided by an unconscious script, and we become aware that Who We Really Are may in reality have little to do with the character who has been following that script. We begin to feel the tremors of our own unlived life.

The width of the gap between What You Portray and Who You Really Are is the distance to your own authenticity, and is what Jung would associate with the depth of your neurosis and depression. Neurosis, he said, is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. And to risk the known in order to explore the possible is to embrace the anxiety and suffering that such a decision is bound to bring.

When, or whether, one begins the journey to authenticity, to the They who They Really Are, is entirely personal, and optional. This is not a contest to be won. We may want to spend another year, or the rest of our lives, attempting to “make it work” as prescribed in our Book of Rules. And there’s no shame in that. We may “make it work” quite well indeed, and can go to sleep at night knowing that our parents would be proud.

Or else we may continue to hear the calling to strike out on that Personal Journey, that painful, terrifying, exciting journey, until whether our parents would be proud, or whether the world understands or approves matters very little any more.

Again, this is from Hollis (from the book Creating a Life):

Where is the unlived life which haunts, or summons, or intimidates you?

We have all been called to spiritual greatness. Not the greatness of worldly standard, but the largeness of individuation, the vocation to be who we are, in the peculiar fashion the psyche demands, at whatever cost may be exacted by the collective.

Somewhere, deep inside of each of us, is the knowing which knows us, that mystery which seeks us, desires realization through us. What a defilement of our calling it is to live the lesser life.

We may be frightened by the scope of such calling, but it is even more frightening to have stayed stuck in a life of no consequence.


  1. Alex said,

    December 3, 2007 @ 11:12 pm

    This is good stuff.

  2. Will said,

    December 4, 2007 @ 9:52 am

    Thanks Alex! Of course, it doesn’t have a title that starts “8 Ways to..” or “How to (make money, get traffic) With Your Blog” or any other title gimmicks, and no pretty charts, and no big boobs in wet shirts. Just all those damned words.

    So thank you and the few others who actually read it. I appreciate your taking the time. Your visit is more important to me than a hundred thousand click-click-clickers.

  3. Tyro said,

    December 6, 2007 @ 1:20 am

    Interesting stuff. The last quote reminds me of something a leader of the US peace movement said: “our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.” I think she was saying that most of us don’t live up to our potential and we’re afraid to think about what we could accomplish, should we but try.

    In “Happier”, Tal Ben-Shahar groups people into four grids by whether they seek short term pleasure or not, and whether they seek long term rewards or not. He called those who forgo pleasure for some long-term rewards “Rat Racers” and observed that these people rarely find the happiness they believe will come with just one more accomplishment. I wonder how many of these Rat Racers are giving up pleasure for some distant dream in order to live up to the image their parents have for them.

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