The Nostalgia Of Unlived Lives: Trying To Find Meaning In Ordinary Life

Posted by

The most painful memories are the lives we’ve never got to live, the choices we never got to make. As a younger man, romantic notions filled my head, an idealism about what it meant to live. I wanted to write. I wanted to fall in love. I wanted my life to be a beautiful story filled with adventures and strong, intense emotions.  I wanted nothing more than to “win” life. 

Only now do I realize how much ego was present then. Without realizing it, I became arrogant. I thought my life should mean something in the grand sense. I would not have admitted this then, but I looked down on ordinariness. I saw my parents and I felt sad for them. I saw regular people working 9-5 jobs, and I thought I want more than them. They never got to live their dreams. I was going to be different, of course. I have always been far more competitive than I’d like to admit. I wanted to show people how great I was. 

In many ways, I have lived my dreams. I moved to New York City in my early 20s and lived wildly for much of my 20s and 30s. It was romantic in a sense, a life of constant searching and movement, an exciting life. Every weekend (and many weeknights), there was another party to go to, another bar to hit up. And I traveled a lot too. I took trips all over Europe and throughout the United States. I have become a psychotherapist. I make a good living. I married a loving, supportive partner. 

But through it all, there is a sadness to living. It’s painful to admit our ordinariness, and by all accounts, my life is pretty ordinary. It’s painful to admit that some of our dreams will never come true. It’s painful to admit that the lives I imagined with other women or about poetry books I would write will never come to fruition.  It’s painful to admit that I will be forgotten. It reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Tokyo Story when one character asks another “Isn’t life disappointing?” And the other responds with a smile, “Yes, it is.” 

But there is a silver lining these days. I am reminded of a Conan O’Brien interview in the Times a few years ago. In it he states:

Sorry. Calvin Coolidge was a pretty popular president. I’ve been to his grave in Vermont. It has the presidential seal on it. Nobody was there. And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think that’s what separates me from the other hosts.

I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.

Conan O’Brien

Conan sees something that few people see. None of it matters. Calvin Coolidge was president a hundred years ago. And really, no one gives a shit about Calvin Coolidge at this point in history besides history professors. When I lived near Greenwood Cemetery, I took walks in it often, and I would read the thousands of gravestones. Here were people who lived and loved just like I did. Here were people who had grand dreams for life, and were now dead and forgotten. Such is the way of thing.  No matter what I do, I will not be remembered.  

That sounds like a depressing thought, but this line of thinking is freeing. It releases me from a competitive streak that runs through my soul. I don’t have to prove anything or be anything. I can let go of comparing myself to my peers a little more. And it shows me how little the ego has to do with contentment. I do think achievement is good for people’s self-esteem. But it is often a pyrrhic victory. The human ego is never satisfied. Even after you achieve something, we hardly enjoy it for that long. We often next ask, “what is next?” Desire is the fuel that keeps humanity moving forward, but it is also the fuel that leads to dissatisfaction with one’s life. And I have no intention of being dissatisfied. 

As I enter the second half of my life, I look forward to laying down my ego a bit more and resting more in the present. I want nothing more than to read a few books, eat some nice food, hang out with my wife, travel and try and be present because it will all be over soon enough. I hope you can do the same. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s