Making Peace with the Unknowable


I once heard meditation teacher Pascal Auclair speak about cherishing life, how it hinges on acceptance rather than judgment. Auclair talked about how he always had in mind this version of the life he was supposed to have, and whenever he thought of it, the lure was so strong because there was only pleasure there.

My own version of the life I was “supposed to have” centered on being a mom, not just any mom, but the super-mom from a Sunny Delight commercial that had refreshing drinks ready for when the kids came back inside from playing. I can honestly say in this dream, there was only “sunny delight” there.

“When I come back here,” Auclar said, speaking of his current life, “it’s very different. And it makes me miserable because I am always comparing one life to the other.” Eventually, he decided to give his present life more of a chance. (I am, too.)

Author Cheryl Strayed also writes about that alternate life. In her Dear Sugar column, while counseling a person who is deciding whether or not to become a parent, Strayed lists the many questions she does not know of the life she did not live. “I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

Perhaps you have a “ghost ship” of your own, the one that got away–that lost love that you have an imagined life with, or that job you were offered but didn't take, or the trip you weren’t able to go on where many opportunities might have unfolded, or perhaps you have an alternate imaginary writing life. If this or that happened with your first published piece, debut novel, or memoir, would you be chatting with Oprah now? 


Another way of thinking of this is through the lens of nostalgia. At one point in Mohsin Hamid’s phenomenal novel Exit West, the omniscient narrator says that the characters’ “memories took on a potential, which is of course how our great nostalgias are born…” 

Nostalgia may feel good on the surface, but if we dwell too much in what might have been, we are, in essence, allowing ourselves to be held captive.

I recently took a speculative fiction class taught by Laura van den Berg (offered again in June 2024!), where we looked at Julio Cortazar’s “Island at Noon.” The story involves a man who works as a steward on an airplane who becomes obsessed with an island they fly over and starts to develop an obsession with the alternate life he might have on the island (to disastrous effect). Indeed, the more he becomes obsessed with island life, the farther his other life recedes. News from a woman he was once with announcing she will be marrying someone else barely registers for him. That can be how the ghost ship works should your mind become fascinated with it rather than meaningfully engaging in your actual life.

Reading the newspaper, I found that nostalgia can also grip communities, which some political observers use to partially explain current presidential polling. As Frank Bruni writes, recency bias is a psychological phenomenon where people feel current problems acutely but think better of experiences in retrospect. Communities can experience collective nostalgia, where they long for an idealized past. (“Where ‘there’s only pleasure there,’ some might say.”) You’ve probably heard the phrase the “good ol’ days.”


Strayed’s idea of saluting the ghost ship is a gentle parting. Experiencing gratitude can make letting go a bit easier, but that’s not always the response we choose.

Take for example, Edgar Allen Poe’s famously chilling tale, “The Cask of Amontillado,” where Fortunato is lured into the catacombs by Montresor, his soon-to-be murderous friend, who wants him to taste a particular amontillado. 

“You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was,” says Montresor, offering Fortunato more alcohol as he coaxes him along, still acting the part of attentive friend and not giving any clue to his other motives. Early on, Montresor tells us, “It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.”  

One of the compelling drives of the story is that we are wondering why Montresor would commit such a terrible crime as burying his friend alive. Poe leaves out firm details. Was Fortunato’s off-the-page insult a perceived slight or an actual one? Importantly, “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was,” is a line of comparison, revealing some twinning imagery between the two characters. The rhythm of the sentence underscores this twinning as well, with the ‘o’ sound in “beloved” echoing the ‘a’ in “was.” Montresor is old money and on the decline, and Fortunato, new and doing well. Does Montresor despise his friend, or does he despise the reminder of what he and his family once were? Montresor chooses to bury Fortunato deep inside his own family’s catacombs. What would it mean if one interpretation of the story was that it wasn't merely a separate friend Montresor buried alive, but a kind of twin, or part of himself that he had to bury in this way? The psychological terror of this story is part of why it’s so memorable. 

This may be an extreme example, but I’ve found that many of my friends and loved ones go through a kind of excruciating mental suffering when it comes to reconciling (or perhaps failing to reconcile!) the life they imagined they would have with the one they do. Let’s remember to be gentle, perhaps looking to gratitude over squelching. Let’s remember that it’s the straddling of multiple lives, the indecision therein, that causes such suffering. And let’s remember there is so much to discover in our feet-on-the-earth, not just head-in-the-clouds life. For some, life can seem tedious, endlessly filled with routine and responsibility, but as Pascal Auclair clarified in a meditation talk, “My happiness lies in my response, not in the circumstances of my life.”

When he realized how much dwelling on an idealized version of life harmed him, Auclair made it a practice to recommit to his current life. As he put it, “Let me take this life on instead of wanting another.”