The Nostalgia of Unlived Lives: How Regret Shapes Our Existence

tokyo story.jpg

Recently an acquaintance-- let’s call him John-- told me that they had broken up with their girlfriend. The reasons for the break up were familiar to anyone who has ended a relationship; there was a sense that they had drifted apart; the sex had diminished; the good times, which had been so numerous, were replaced by bitterness and fights. I barely batted an eye hearing this all. After all, I had lived it before.

As the night lingered on and the number of empty pint glasses piled up, John opened up a bit further. He felt pangs of regret over his decision. He had imagined many different lives with his ex. Beach trips to Dubrovnik at 80, absurd, nostalgic dreams for children that will never exist, of afternoons spent on dreamed playgrounds on suburban streets, of quiet nights in darkened bedrooms where they make love even after 30 years of marriage.

And now his future was uncertain. His unlived lives had vanished like morning fog over the bay.

I attempted to comfort John. I talked about how the nostalgia of unlived lives are often the hardest ones to deal with in existence. That our unlived lives are always with us, that every one of our actions is colored by a different choice we could have made, a different person we could have been. That being an adult means that every choice we make will inevitably cut off a multitude of other choices. And this conflict is part of what it means to be human.

He nodded as I spoke. “So Mr. Therapist Man, what do we about it?” he asked. It may have sounded like a joke, but I could sense in the quivers of his voice, that it wasn’t a trivial request. He was looking for answers or guidance or someone to tell him it would all be okay.

“We drink,” I said as I raised up my glass for a cheers as we both laughed. And then we were quiet in our awkward knowing.


Later as I took the subway home, the rumble of train tracks as soothing and constant as undulating waves, I felt a pang of guilt for my answer. I had wanted to help him. I wanted to tell him that he’d feel better in the morning. That it was best not to think too much about it all. That sadness passes. But I didn’t.  

I thought about a movie I love, as the train rumbled forward, called “Tokyo Story.” That the film is a masterpiece undersells the tremendous tender beauty and sadness of its art. The film would seem deathly slow to modern audiences, I fear but is worth your time. As Roger Ebert said in his review, “It ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections.”

Near the end of the movie, Noriko, one of the main characters, is trying to console her sister-in-law after some tragic event. The sister-in-law is enraged and unhappy about the behavior of certain members of her family and through her tears, she says to Noriko, “Isn’t life disappointing?”

And Noriko, smiling from ear-to-ear with a twinge of sadness in her eyes, responds to her sister-in-law. “Yes, it is.” They both look away and stop talking about their lives. There is nothing else left to be said.

As I thought about that moment in the movie, water began to fill my eyes. Yes, I wanted to comfort John, but I knew I would be lying to him. The things I wanted to say no one wanted to hear, I felt.

So I imagined our conversation as I exited the train and walked to my apartment. “Life by its very nature is sad, isn’t it?” I would have said to John. “And that part of the landscape of the human soul is to deal with loss, imagined or not. That to lose something, even if it is our imagined lives, is to feel the burden of one’s limitations. And the truth is, even if we want to pretend that we are feeling ok, many of sense that life is disappointing. But the thought is too much for us to bear. So we move forward, distracted and chasing and hoping and doing and pretending that we are fine with how things turned out.”

Tokyo Story
Starring Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, So Yamamura, Kyoko Kagawa