A book I sometimes use for writing prompts includes an exercise in which one is invited to write about experiences from, say, sixth grade–but to include what did not happen that year, what one did not learn, what was missing from a typical sixth grade experience at the time. To focus on missed experiences seems initially an exercise in regret and bitterness: I look back at all I had hoped for that never came to pass, or the usual sorts of satisfactions that my particular life refused to bring, and in short order I am awash in negative emotions, alternately feeling the loss of what I believe should have been mine, or might have been mine, but never came to me, or feeling anger at life’s unfairness and all the ways I have been shortchanged over the course of my journey.
But such a response to reflecting on what has not been part of my life could just as easily turn towards relief, even gratitude, at the disappointments, failures, near-catastrophes I have managed to avoid or been spared from experiencing. The sixth grade total missed joys also includes a fair amount of missed heartbreak, missed frustration. Poet William Blake notes that “joy and sorrow are woven fine,” and the threads of my life tapestry are threads of blessing right along with threads of grief, sometimes coming so close to one another that I cannot know one without knowing the other at almost the same moment.
Reflecting on what has not been part of my experience is much like looking at a scene through one eye, then covering that eye and contemplating the same scene through the other eye. The landscape is the same; the angle from which I view it determines what parts of the landscape come into focus and what parts remain unnoticed. Of course I will see more with both eyes–yet it can be useful at times to look with just one eye to watch what emerges that might otherwise remain hidden. There is much that I have known and experienced, and there is much that I had hoped to know and experience that will probably not come my way. What matters in the end is that I gather the whole of it, what I lived and what I have not lived, and discover how the entirety, all that is present and all that is absent, is meaningful.