I’m a cat with only one life
October 28, 2018 9:48 AM   Subscribe

I’m content with my life, but it sometimes freaks me out that I will not live another life and my experiences are in many senses very, very limited. I’ll never know what it’s like to be another person or live in another country or think in another language. I’ll come to know only a handful of cities in limited timeframes of their growth and evolution.

Before you point out that it can be done, that there are people who move countries and learn new languages ... sure, I’ve tried that and I grew up in a multilingual household. But I also mean it in a more abstract sense, that I’m really only going to know what it’s like to be me, and I’m only going to ever know a limited number of spaces and people. One cannot be a local everywhere (unless perhaps one is also an outsider everywhere). We don’t pick the era we are born into, or the body that we are born into. One cannot read all the books in the library. And so on.

Does anybody else get this sense from time to time? Is this a feeling that has changed over the course of your life? Are there any books or other readings or films that speak to this feeling?
posted by gemutlichkeit to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
posted by suedehead at 9:55 AM on October 28, 2018 [140 favorites]

I think this is a large part of why I got into writing and roleplaying on the internet. I will never read every book or watch every movie or whatever, much less get to actually go and have whole lives in other interesting places, and I feel a certain amount of grief about that, but I have no intention of being a "real" novelist or whatever--for me, it just helps to get away and be someone else for awhile, and gives me a periodic excuse for doing a bunch of research into a particular thing that I find interesting at the moment without having to invest in that being The Thing I Do on a long-term basis.
posted by Sequence at 10:01 AM on October 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

It hits me really hard at times - but it's temporary and goes away on its own.

It does help to stretch my own experiences as much as I can - I'll never fully know what it's like to be someone else, but I can focus on the books and media that will give me the most stretch, spend time around people who aren't like me and do my best to listen to them, run experiments on my own life, etc.

And for all the things about another person I'll never get, there are more things that unite us - language, faith, music, hunger, art, pain, hope, work, love.

On preview - oh god that Sylvia Plath quote. I copied it out by hand when I was in college. It's still everything.
posted by bunderful at 10:02 AM on October 28, 2018

I think the Bell Jar quote selected by suedehead is perfect. It speaks to the human awareness that selection means elimination. It's built into the material basis of what it means to be human: for example, when a baby is pre-verbal it can distinguish any potential sounds of any potential human language, but as it gains competence in one language its capacity to even hear the subtle distinctions of a foreign phonemic difference erodes.
You ask if this feeling has changed over our lives. I was just discussing this with my partner, and we had a very similar trajectory. I'm in my early 50s. Until about age 30 I felt life was infinite. Through my 30s and 40s I had an anxiety over the limitations you describe. Then around 50 something shifted. I now see life as a very finite, bounded thing, like a book with a beginning and an ending, and a visceral feeling that the finite nature of it means one should go deep instead of wide. That is, it has made me want to focus on intensifying the depth and richness of my existing relationships, career, and community, and I've lost the sorrow that I'll never go to every country in the world, learn more languages, or be a cat.
posted by nantucket at 10:04 AM on October 28, 2018 [42 favorites]

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has a number of terms (coined by the author himself) in the same emotional neighborhood you describe. The first three emphasize the limitations of being a single person living a single life; the last two are more about not knowing what it's like to be another person.

The kinda blues


Having words for it doesn't necessarily make it any easier to live with, but if you're looking for reassurance that you aren't the only person who feels it, there you go.

I haven't found that the feeling's changed much over time for me personally. If anything, it gets a bit more intense every year.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 10:28 AM on October 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

I think everyone feels this way sometimes, and different people parcel the feeling out in different ways.

For some, it's feeling little daily twinges of "Wow, there goes someone I'll never meet," "there goes an event I'll never attend," "that person has a skill I'll never acquire." For some, it's going months or years at a time without thinking about it, and then facing it in occasional bouts of agony. For some, it's not thinking about it at all and bottling it up until it reaches a point of crisis.

But I think we're all allotted a certain amount of anguish about it, and we have to grapple with it on one schedule or another.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:29 AM on October 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

This piece from NPR always gets me, and the end of it is, as intended, weirdly comforting:

It's sad, but it's also ... great, really. Imagine if you'd seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you're "supposed to see." Imagine you got through everybody's list, until everything you hadn't read didn't really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

There's also The Ghost Ship That Didn't Carry Us, which is basically that Plath quote in essay form.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 10:44 AM on October 28, 2018 [22 favorites]

Yeah, I totally feel this way. Also my mother, who probably only has another couple decades to go (and maybe only one more where she is more-or-less able bodied and able to do her normal activities without assistance or accommodation, and let's try not to even think about cognitive decline…) has been finding that this sort of thing weighs more and more heavily on her mind as the years go by.

It's just part of being mortal. The universe is infinite, and we are not. You can't get hung up on trying to be a completionist; this isn't some Bethesda game where if you put in enough hours you can see pretty much everything. You'll only ever see a tiny fraction and knowing that is the price we pay for being humans, so just try to focus on having as many good experiences you can in the time that you're allotted. Try to make every day count, because you only get so many and there aren't any do-overs. There's no cure for mortality.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:51 AM on October 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

I've never even left the U.S., though I very much want to and still hope to do so. One way I deal with this feeling is by watching movies, especially with subtitles, that help me get the feeling and sound of day-to-day life in other cultures, movies where travel is part of the theme (especially travel romance movies), slice-of-life anime, etc. I've also been collecting postcards and photo and illustration books (just bought another today, Mateusz Urbanowicz's book of illustrations of Tokyo storefronts!) that show scenes from everyday life in other places, e.g., books of photos of interiors of people's houses, books and postcards depicting people and their belongings, sets of postcards and books depicting street fashion elsewhere in the world, etc.

Maybe some of the books and postcard sets I linked and/or ones mentioned by others in this Ask MetaFilter question I posted a couple years ago will resonate!

Also, I follow a lot of photographers from around the world on Instagram: Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, Australia, Latin America, the U.K., etc. It's lovely to get a global slice of life that way every day, and it also means that at any given time of day, there's likely to be someone posting something interesting, and/or liking the photos I post (after midnight in my U.S. time zone is when a lot of people in Germany seem to be waking up and checking Instagram, for instance, so I get a lot of likes from that time zone if I post around that time of night).

One other way I get at this feeling: making international friends through Secret Quonsar! This will be my third Quonsmas, though I previously did the MeFiSwap CD swaps internationally for a few years as well. I highly recommend doing this if you can and choosing the international option when sign-ups open up this year. You can sign up for a notification so you know when that is via a link in that MetaTalk thread.
posted by limeonaire at 11:44 AM on October 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Strangely this comic helped me with a similar existential feeling I had. I can't be or experience all the things, but I can be some of the things I want to be and that number is greater than 1. So you might not do all the things you want to do or know all the feelings you want to, but if you do nothing then you definitely won't know. Also the human experience is less variable than you think, if you can't experience those things yourself, you can read & learn about other peoples experiences with them & that takes less time. Read, watch movies, play computer games set in other countries. I'm spending my Sunday being an ancient Egyptian at the time of Cleopatra. Tonight I'll finish a book I'm reading on being in the trenches in WWI.
posted by wwax at 12:36 PM on October 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood was pretty good for when I still felt that way as an angsty high schooler who was unbearably stuck in a suburb.

Now for me, I already went and experienced outrageous, life-altering events that I'm still processing 8 years later, but I've done a lot of things and changes in that meantime. It helps me to be extremely grounded and work towards excellence for what I'm interested in and thinking about what slice of my universe that I'm exploring at the moment. Once that stops getting interesting, I move on to something else, which is probably something I'm already working on and now I can prioritize to the front.

I think if you are worried, just try doing something that you don't know the outcome of. Treat it as a form of play that is new to you - there is so much to do! So just do one thing and see where it leads you. I'm too busy exploring the paths I've gone down to think too much about what I'm missing out on, because I'm always searching and learning about new things too from my friends as well. I can always change direction.
posted by yueliang at 1:29 PM on October 28, 2018

I've heard literary critic Wlad Godzich make the point that comparative literature is important in part because it offers "intelligence about the world," informing us in ways we can't reach directly. I think this is even more often a motivation for consuming diaries (see The Diary Review by one of MeFi's own), memoirs (see many good questions on AskMe), documentaries (see this recent question), and ethnographies (e.g. see Nisa, Mama Lola, Return to Laughter, or In the Company of Man). Taking in a bunch of things like that may help with this feeling.

Insofar as your concern has more to do with being limited in how much you can experience, that's the crux of Heidegger's Being and Time. In a very early and relatively readable lecture called "The Concept of Time" [PDF] he boils his question down: "What is time? became the question: Who is time? More closely: are we ourselves time? Or closer still: am I my time?" At other points, he follows Aristotle in thinking that to define something you should find its limit, so he looks at death as that limit or horizon defining who I am and figures that anticipating that finitude is important for a proper understanding of who I can be. Remembering this sometimes probably is helpful. But via similar reasoning (SS1924, if anyone cares), he thought of "being-with-all-human-beings" as a "reckless" lack of self-definition. Drawing lines between that and his later interests in tradition, heritage, and Nazism is an exercise left for the reader. So I wouldn't give up on understanding as many other people as you can either.
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:38 PM on October 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've had this feeling too.

I've also grown to believe that I'll get to do things I missed this time around in another life. Along with this, the things in life that have sucked, maybe I don't ever have to do them again. I don't have a particular religion, but I have faith in this one thing. I figure I'll eventually get to try everything in one life or another. It's not to avoid things in this life, more to let things go if there isn't a way for me to do them now. I still get to do amazing things in this life!
posted by wiskunde at 2:05 PM on October 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have feels about that, too. A cat with only one life, instead of the nine (or more!) I wish were out there for me.

Married to the same man for 40+ years, lived in the same house for 35 years (minus 2)--same region for 45 years, raised four kids, no career, having my life revolving around horses..... It's been a satisfying life in so many ways, and although there's been rough spots, there's a great deal to be said about being this person.

Even though the above may be seem to be a pretty circumscribed life, I still have spent hours, days, and years in the high sage desert alone with my horses and investigated several cities. I've read incessantly, have two degrees and way more extra credits than anyone really needs, lived in Turkey for two years, traveled in 1/2 the states, have slaughtered my own meat and attended the Shakespeare Festival, have slept in a dirt floored line shack and stayed in a penthouse. It's been interesting to go back and forth wanting to spend my life in a library and wanting to never be indoors, always interacting with my animals.

And yet, there's so many things that I feel I've missed. I would love to learn to play an instrument proficiently, to learn to dance well, to learn other languages and travel overseas. I'll always regret not having a career as veterinarian or a horticulturist or librarian. I never really learned to wear heels, apply 'real' makeup, or 'do my hair' having been a tomboy all my life. I don't think I'm very adventurous, and the times my life-road could have taken a different turn, I feel I often took a safer route. I wonder what would have happened if my parents hadn't died when I was young, if had been outgoing in high school, if I'd stayed in collage at 20, or I had served in Viet Nam. What if I had lived in New York City, or moved to Alaska?

I would love to live several lifetimes, but the one thing I wouldn't wouldn't do is be a teenager again. Life didn't begin until after 25! 30-40 was the perfect decade--old enough to have a lot of life experience, yet still young enough physically, with no aches or pains.

I know my life would have been different had there been more money in the equation. More money means more choice. People in their 70s can change their lives--go back to school, change careers, move to foreign lands--all you need is the desire...and the money. Had I decided to move away from a small town in the high plains desert and pursued a city lifestyle, there probably would have been a great deal more money. It would have been interesting, and yet the regrets are not such that I wish I had left this life I've chosen.

This is an interesting ask, and I'm looking forward to reading the links people have posted.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:33 PM on October 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

This is the exact foundation of the plot of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. You might also look into Nietschze's doctrine of eternal return, which is a more formal philosophical statement of the problem.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:14 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Achievement is overrated.
posted by flabdablet at 10:12 PM on October 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I grew up with the opposite problem, so to speak. I was me, but as my family saw me, "me" was not supposed to exist. My parents didn't want a daughter, the church they joined didn't see women as having their own existences, much less individual existences, and the area I grew up in was filled with the extremes of circumscribed being (evangelicals, strict Mormons, etc.) and total freedom (hippies – Ken Kesey lives a few miles from my childhood home, and by "a few" I do in fact mean less than ten). Plus I came an hour from death in my early twenties.

I escaped to literature, languages and music; that escape ended up becoming my adult home. I speak fifteen languages, one of them at a bilingual level, a few others at conversational level (Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and Spanish), and a bunch of them at "tourist able to converse intelligibly and read everything" level – those include Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian. I've read Russian literature in Russian, Ancient Greek works in Ancient Greek (part of my comparative literature thesis), Roman authors in Latin...

In short, I could submerge a lot of people with a lot of knowledge. I don't. I've lived in three countries and am starting to lose count of the ones I've visited, so I could also play the card of worldly woman. I don't; I only bring it out in specific situations. I fundamentally do not trust anyone who pretends to know what the world or humanity is about, especially if they speak several languages and are well-traveled. For me the height of ignorance would be to travel the world, meet so many people, speak so many languages, and think they can all be rolled into one or that assurances can be made about what any of it means. (Again, speaking generically. When it comes to specifics, things are different... but it's also tricky because people often think they know the specifics, when really they're coming at it from a generic standpoint. I say this because I've lived it.)

Do you know what you learn when you really meet the world as it is? That it is the same all over in its diversity. Human beings are imaginative, creative, and completely different the world over. We can make generalizations that hold true for large populations, but those generalizations overlook the individuals among us, and yes, even for cultures where "individualism" is a term they roll their eyes at. Travelling the world and speaking all those languages has taught me that this is what truly matters:
I’m really only going to know what it’s like to be me.

No one else will. You are the only you. There are societal expectations, systemic walls and doors, individual talents, group dynamics, imaginary borders that put up walls, walls that can be torn down by individual action – which can be individual or form new groups (a hundred years ago, women did not have the right to do much of anything they now can today, for instance). Our environment acts on us, yes, but we also act on our environment. Only you can know what it's like to be you, in your environment.
posted by fraula at 5:20 AM on October 29, 2018 [6 favorites]

So this approach clearly is not for everyone, but:

I believe in some sort of reincarnation/recycling, and I believe that time is not really linear. So when I think of opportunities missed, or paths untaken, or experiences unlived - I think to myself: Maybe next time - unless something even better comes along.

Believing that so many paths are available, and will be again, makes it much easier to be content in my choices.
posted by widdershins at 8:04 AM on October 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I get this feeling from time to time but I temper it with the comfort of knowing one day I'll be dead and none of it would have really mattered even if I had experienced everything possible. Same goes for all beings. We're just physics and chemistry temporarily existing while able to delude itself into thinking it can ponder itself. Sometimes I also see it kind of how I see videogame achievements. Ultimately arbitrary milestones that don't mean anything to anyone, not even really the person getting them, but on the journey they're neat to have gotten so you feel noticed in a way -- but they are utterly unsatisfying and pointless to seek out for their own sake.
posted by GoblinHoney at 11:59 AM on October 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have this feeling, too. I don't know if you feel this too, but part of what I perseverate on is that I don't have the option to live all the lives I would like to. I can't have been born in another time, for example, or be of another race or ethnicity.

It helps me to appreciate other people that much more, because they're the only way I could begin to understand what it is like to be someone else.
posted by MrBobinski at 6:26 PM on October 31, 2018

One cannot read all the books in the library.

Yes but one can read a hell of a lot of them. This feeling you have is the exact reason the non-fiction section of the library exists. Get cracking.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:15 AM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

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