Many Lives to Live


I first heard this sentiment on a television show, spoken by a woman who had reinvented herself at midlife. She’d left behind a life that no longer suited her, and created one filled with zest and enthusiasm.

Always on the trail of such stories of personal alchemy, I snatched up her words like a jewel thief. Then deposited these golden treasures into a play, and based a character on them. And spoke them many times myself, because if you’re writing the play and acting in it, you get carte blanche to give yourself the good stuff.


Just let go. If you were here on Monday, you know I’ve been writing about letting go. And at first glance, the words above seem to be asking us to let go of the old life, the one that no longer fits. To take a risk so that we can step into the new life.

Not an easy task, to be sure. Yet if it was as clear as that, letting go of ONE OLD LIFE and stepping into ONE NEW LIFE, it would be so much simpler.

But look at those words again, and you’ll see they’re more complex. Because if reinvention or life enhancement or meaning making or whatever you want to call it is on our plates at midlife and beyond, we’re also being asked to let go of other lives waiting to be lived. Lives that might have been.

It puts me in mind of that old chestnut of a quote from John Greenleaf Whittier:


It might have been. Oh my, is there anything more poignant? Closing off what might have been, ripe with all of its promise and possibility, can feel like an existential blow to our psyches. In fact, wouldn’t it be nicer if we just didn’t have to face it?

Many times we don’t face it. At least that’s what I’ve noticed. When clients begin to grope towards this subject, I often hear something like this:

Yes, but I’ve always wanted to take up surfing. And write a book. In fact, I have such a great idea for a documentary film. Of course, I musn’t forget golf. Plus I’m committed to organic gardening and the slow food movement. And I love the desert so much. I want to live there and have a horse property. But the beach is fantastic too. I often wish I’d studied marine biology, in fact. Oh, wait, I forgot that I’ve been meaning to sign up for volunteer work at my local library. I love to read. And I need to get back in shape too. And I often wonder, what would it be like to have another relationship in my life? It’s been too long. I wish I had a stronger connection with my friends, too.

Keep in mind that the person speaking likely has a full time job. And in the midst of so much overwhelm, it’s not surprising that they usually end up doing nothing.


Faced with such a dilemma, we often resort to getting tough with ourselves. “Just make a decision already,” we demand, “And get on with it!”

Or worse, we sink into a stuck space where life seems empty, repetitive, and meaningless.

Whatever the case, we need information to go forward. But the information we’re seeking isn’t usually out there. Rather, it’s deep within us, in the place where story, imagination, and archetypes reside.

Only by going there first can we discern which lives need to be expressed as actions in the external world, and which lives are actually calling us to take an inner spiritual journey.

Because the desire to plant an organic garden might just be what it is. Or, it might be about developing a relationship with your inner nurturer.

And the desire to take up golf might just be what it is. Or, it might be about opening yourself up to bond with other men.

And the desire to volunteer at the library might just be what it is. Or, it might be about recognizing your wise, internal sage.

Consider what Robert Johnson says about this in Living Your Unlived Life:

It can be useful to reclaim what is unlived in you externally, adjusting your life to express these potentials. However, often this is impractical or impossible…When we experience untapped potentials inwardly, on the level of symbolic life, often the experience goes deeper, is more intense, and produces more personal development. There are many realities that can only be taken in at the imaginal level. You can still live whatever path resides within you if you consent to explore symbolic life.


If you’re experiencing a bunch of lives waiting to be lived, they probably feel like a herd of penned-in wild horses, poised to break down the corral at the first crack of thunder. Leaving mayhem in their wake.

So let them out. Now. Gently. Be their horse whisperer.

Write them down, and keep going until each one has been released. Or make them into a mind map, letting them twist and turn and intertwine. Or gather them all on slips of paper, and stow them safely in their own special treasure box.

Once you’ve gentled them, live their story for a few moments by giving them a voice. Speak (or write) as if you were in that life:

  • I love organic gardening because it heals me, brings me back to my roots, and brings me into rhythm with the seasons.
  • I spend my day outside, digging in the soil, planting.
  • At the end of the day I feel fulfilled, satisfied, at peace.

These prompts can be used with any unlived life or unlived activity, and once you step into them, you will probably find the life wants to keep talking, going far beyond the few words I’ve used here as an example.

And then an interesting thing may happen. You’ll start to notice themes. Or you’ll keep repeating yourself. Although on the surface each life may seem vastly different, you will likely find a shared story that lives within them.

Creativity. Wisdom. Love. Adventure. Community. Independence. Balance. Nature. Meaning.

Whatever it is, this is the story that wants your attention. And it can be lived in the external world, through small actions. It can also be lived symbolically in the internal world, through grand imaginations.

You can write it. Paint it. Dance it. Collage it. Sing it.

You can talk to it. Open up a dialogue. Tell it what you see. Ask it what it needs. Express to it what it feels like to begin to accept it.

You can meet it in your dreams.

You can relieve its urgency to be lived in the external world by inviting it into your internal life.


In the end, there are still a lot of other lives out there. But the act of examining them is in itself a feat of alchemy. Giving them their freedom. Listening to their stories. Discerning the essence of what needs to be lived.

Transforming what might have been into a rich life, both inner and outer.




37 thoughts on “Many Lives to Live

  1. The biggest lesson I have learned in my life is that where there is hope there is life. Although my life was changed remarkably after my accident, I learned that I was able to rebuild a new life in a new body. I think what was important for me, was to recognize that I still have potential to make a difference to this world, despite being paralyzed from the neck down. Each of us can make a difference and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be physical. Humans seem to spend their lives getting ready to live instead of simply just living NOW.

    Your positivity and upbeat attitude towards life shines through every word you write.

    Thank you!

    • You’re a fantastic example of what I’m talking about in this post, Tracy. You live a rich, satisfying life, yet some might say how can you “do” that because you can’t “do” the same things you could before. Clearly, satisfaction is not all about doing in the way we think it is. Thanks so much for your comment.

    • Tracy, I just wanted you to that I always look for your comments in these blogs. Your prospective always grabs me.
      Thank you for your insight. You have so much wisdom to share.

  2. “But look at those words again, and you’ll see they’re more complex. Because if reinvention or life enhancement or meaning making or whatever you want to call it is on our plates at mid life and beyond, we’re also being asked to let go of other lives waiting to be lived. Lives that might have been.” ( I really like this wake up call)

    Ahh yes the… “if only clause”

    Ouspensky covered this under the category of imagination and the three types of dream state. Some people;

    Dream their dreams (Passive and quiet)
    speak of their dreams(Again passive except for the action of talking)
    Live their dreams(Active yet rarely satisfied)

    The “If only clause” is actually fuelled by the negative emotion of envy. Those that dream of a different life are being eaten by a force below them. Yet they are unaware that this is happening to them. An interesting phenomena to observe, is the eyes of someone wrapped up in this passive fantasy. They seem to lose their sparkle, canting away and looking off into the distance. Time can pass yet they are unaware of it, because they are literally speaking, off in a different world.

    The people that talk their dreams are again in the same category of
    envy gluttony, however they are also expressing their contempt for the life that they live. You will notice that it is always about external circumstances. “Things would be different if….” and it usually goes on to cover all aspects of their involvements. How ever it rarely goes any further than this. A form of justification I would say. This leads us to the next category;

    Those that live their dreams. Here we have someone who is functioning with directed attention to a point. They set out to achieve something with a plan, desiring to experience something different in any of the centres. The curious thing though, they are never satisfied. If they set a record, in any category, you will no doubt observe them, trying to break their own record at a future date. This is a more conscious state, in comparison to the other two. I would say that it is the place of the “old soul”, who has learned that impressions are meant to be experienced. If God was speaking to this soul, we might over hear, “You can experience anything you want… But stay awake will Ya?” In other words “Remember thyself”.

    There are many people who fit in this last category, both positive and negative. We see them throughout history.

    I have to thank you again my friend for helping me remember these ideas. Great post, please forgive my rather lengthy reply.


    • No need to ever apologize for a lengthy reply, Eso, because I always learn so much from your comments! I really enjoyed reading of the three types of people you describe. One thing about envy, though: in Jungian psychology, envy is not necessarily a negative thing, especially if we can understand it. A Jungian would say envy is a way we project parts of our psyche onto others, parts that we are not yet ready to own. This comes up with a lot with my clients. In fact, I point blank will ask them whose life they envy and wish they had. If we can then work to pull back those projections, to understand the deeper story that is wanting to be lived (often internally, even though ego wants to externalize everything), then the envy provides a sort of road map to the future. Thanks for the conversation!

  3. I’ve been thinking about organic gardening lately, so it’s funny you mention it here. I’ve been having such fun with the landscaping I’ve been working on, I thought about attempting a garden. With the landscaping, I like the feeling of creating beauty and the sense of accomplishment when it’s completed. Then the peaceful feeling as I water those young plants each day. This may change a little when the 90+ degree heat arrives, but for now I’m enjoying it.

    • That’s lovely, Eric. You’ve reached down and found the deeper story in your gardening and nurturing of the young plants: creating beauty and peace. The accomplishment part, that’s not so much inner life, but outer life. But that’s good too. We just need to balance the two. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Patty,
    Wow, I LOVE this!!! What a wonderful day to discover your site!!! I am thinking about this idea of just getting these “lives” out of my head and into a mind map…and just the thought is energizing! Sometimes it feels like I’m going in all sorts of directions at once…and maybe,just maybe…there is some commonality to these directions! Wow!!!

    What a wonderfully written piece! And it is great to “meet” you!

    • Hi Lance – Thanks so much, and welcome! Very nice to meet you too. It sounds like you have quite a few lives knocking at the barn door, so I hope you will go for it and liberate them. It can be such a relief, and many insights can come from it. So once you’ve done it, please come back and share your thoughts. I’d love to hear!

  5. What a thought inspiring post. I am going to have to read it again at another time when I have thought a bit, but my initial reaction was that this reflected a bit of a change in my own thinking that I have been experiencing.
    When I got pregnant, I had various choices – to pursue my professional dreams or to take a job that would allow me to be more involved with my daughter. I chose the latter. Throughout the years, I have continued to choose the latter – sometimes feeling a sense of grief at the loss of my professional desires.
    Of late, however, I have come to believe that it isn’t necessarily the profession that is where I want to go or to have – in other words, it isn’t the title or the location. It is more that I want to find my strengths and the environment in which to use them. I now dream of expressing my creativity, my writing, my innovation, my communication, my desire to contribute… I want a profession that allows these to flourish and enrich – it isn’t the type of job but the ability to give those aspects of myself voice that I now crave.

    I want to think about this more – thank you.

    • Yes, this is interesting, considering where you are in life. Robert Johnson would say that you can have that professional identity, through a process of active imagination, even if you don’t “live” it in the external world. I think what’s true for many people is their work ends up falling short of what they had hoped for. But those things you now crave – creativity, writing, innovation, communication, contribution – can be had in many ways besides paying work. Of course, getting paid for it is good too! So often with my clients, though, taking the risks that might be necessary in order to have that kind of work are out of the question because of family or other obligations. So it is a delicate balance. After you’ve pondered a bit, come back and tell us about it!

  6. Hi Patty.
    This is good stuff. So many people hold off doing things that are important to them until whenever, and then they miss out. I’m aware of certain things I ‘would like’ to do in the future, but for now I’m content to sit with them. I’m content with my current lifestyle. I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew, so it’s been a lesson for me to learn to not pressure myself.

    • Oh boy, I hear you on that one Davina, about biting off more than you can chew. Me too. And you know, that’s one of reasons why this kind of approach to dreams and goals and life in general has become so compelling for me. At some point I needed to rein myself in, and become more thoughtful and reflective, rather than always trying to create new lives for myself. This understanding has also taken me to a different level in my work with clients too, because you and I are certainly not the only ones who try to take on too much. Thanks!

  7. I like this thought that a love of gardening or baking or golfing may be something deeper and more meaningful. Very interesting and intriguing.

    I’m going to have to think about what my loves reveal about my deep needs and desires. Gardening is definitely about my farm roots and about connecting with nature. Writing is… about finding myself, learning about myself through putting words to my thoughts. I’m just getting started now…

    • Beautiful, Eva. It sounds like you’re on a roll. I’d love to hear more about where your thoughts take you on this one. Thanks!

  8. Love this Patty. We realize there are a finite number of days in our lives. We want so much to thrive and to utilize fully our gifts and talents. We want to succeed at something and often our jobs don’t give us a feeling of success.

    We also place such unreasonable expectations on ourselves, I know I do. And if we aren’t getting enough done, we must make a larger and more organized list. We have lost touch with finding balance in our lives. Your post is amazing today. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Erin. You’ve certainly captured the essence of what I was trying to say in my post. And the word you use – success – has begun to take on a new meaning for me. I was just talking with a client about this. We tend to view it as an external thing, doing more, more, more in the real world. And yet, I often hear people yearning for a redefinition of success, to something inner, softer, sweeter. Hard to explain exactly. But I bet you know what I’m talking about!

  9. There’s a poem I wrote once that had the line, “what’s left that could have been”, so, as you can imagine, this post really got to me. I mean that in a good way.

    I’m often fearful of looking into myself too much, as inside does sometimes feel like a black hole that all meaning got lost in. Still, I can appreciate what you’re saying and will have to seriously consider the implications of it for me. Thanks Patty. 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing that. You’re so right, it can be awfully frightening to look inside. I hope it’s not presumptuous of me to say this, but I just know that there is much light in there along with the darkness. There are still enchanted forests inside of you to be discovered, Tony. And I have a feeling you will take that journey one day.

  10. Hi Patty — this post is a great reminder of a commitment I made to myself in October 2007 — “I’m going to live my life the way I want.” Typically bull-headed of me, perhaps, but in fact it’s a pretty easy goal to achieve — if I focus on the fact that living the way I want is a process, and not a product (such as making a billion dollars doing it). 🙂

    • Doesn’t sound bull-headed at all to me, Chris. Sounds wonderful! And although I still have to remind myself every day that it’s the process that counts, it is the most amazing thing to live each day the way I wants. Thanks!

  11. I find this truly insightful, Patty. I thought for a bit why I’m not feeling at this moment that there are many lives unlived within me (which I have certainly felt before) and my eyes wandered back to this part of Robert Johnson’s quote, “…When we experience untapped potentials inwardly, on the level of symbolic life, often the experience goes deeper, is more intense, and produces more personal development…” I think I may be presently engaged in a deeper and more intense facet of living. My mental and emotional state, the work that I do, the parent, the wife and the friend that I’m being, are wholly deeply satisfying. At least for these few days. But I think a disclaimer is in order for if there’s anything that’s ever truly dependable, it’s that things change. Thank you for this great post.

    • Thank you, Belinda. I love hearing how all of your life roles, inner and outer, are in sync right now. I like this phrase too: “a deeper and more intense facet of living.” I know we’ve never met, but in your writing and our back and forth comments, I think you are living and breathing that depth into the world right now, and it is very inspiring!

  12. Warning! I am about to totally geek out on Patty for a moment:

    Patty! OMG! This was EXACTLY what I needed to read right now in my life! Gah! I am going to be digesting this blog for a long long time. This is setting off a “ripple effect” in my mind. Epiphany anyone??…

    “Only by going there first can we discern which lives need to be expressed as actions in the external world, and which lives are actually calling us to take an inner spiritual journey.”

    I am engraving this mind. I need to pull this up in my thoughts whenever I get that yearning-poking feeling about my life direction.

    Thank you for so articulately laying out a great message that I know everyone can benefit from, but that still feels like it was written just for me anyway. 🙂 You’re awesome.

    • Thanks so much, Angela! Geek out as much as you like. You captured that feeling perfectly – “yearning/poking.” I’ve had many confusing moments with my own seeker, and as much as I love her, I just need her to settle down now and then and let me hear the deep, still voices inside. And I’m delighted you felt like this was written just for you. That’s a beautiful compliment to receive!

  13. Patti,
    The thing about your blog is I always like to give your posts further thought and write in my journal. I like Lance feel like I’m going off in too many directions (in my head!). Only be settling down with focus will I find what I need to do.

    I was talking to my husband last week about the two of us working on an organic farm this summer. How crazy is that it’s mentioned here!

    • Tess, I appreciate you telling me that so much! Probably it comes as no surprise that I tend to ponder things a lot, so hearing that you are thinking more about what I write makes me feel a special kinship with you. Interesting too, about the “finding what you need to do” part. Robert Johnson would say that we can let it reveal itself to us. I’m still working on trusting that, though, but I like the idea of it. And fascinating moment of synchronicity about the organic farm!

  14. Patty — What a beautiful post. It’s so full of hope. I loved how you began this post by talking about the lives we have waiting for us, if only we reach out and grab them.

    As my energy’s been a bit low lately, I really appreciated reading this post. It reminds me that transitions are part and parcel of our lives — we have to let go of somethings to embrace others.

    Thank you:~)

    • So very kind of you to say, Sara. I’ve been thinking about you a lot this week, hoping you’re feeling better. I think when our energy is low or we’re feeling under the weather, the experience of transition becomes even more intense. Maybe we even get more insights into it. Thanks for your comment!

  15. An amazing post with truth and hope. It really is all about letting the old go and embracing the new. Greatly done here. Have an amazing very blessed rest of the week!!!

  16. Patty, thank you for this inspiring, beautiful post. So wonderful! Yes, if we can just loosen something in ourselves – release our self-restricting images – and breathe into our other dimensions. Then we can free ourselves to become the player or the poet, the dancer or the dare-devil, the wise woman or the warrior. So many facets, so many aspects. We are so much more than we say we are. And just speaking the possibility of our other selves, even when it begins as a whisper, can be the first step to expressing who we truly can be.

    Smiling again from the mountains of Japan – Catrien Ross.

    • Ah, beautifully said, Catrien. I’m smiling too! We are all of that, aren’t we? I wish each person could realize that they are “so much more than” they say they are. Not only would they feel better about themselves and their lives, we would all understand each other so much more too. Thank you!

  17. Hi Patty! Oh my, this was a beautiful and thought provoking post, Patty! I love love love your writing!

    New “lives” are always popping in if we stay awake and listen – I love the reference to the horse whisperer! Brilliant! I’m always thrilled with the unlimited amount of opportunities “out there” just waiting for us to listen. I’m being led on a new (yet not so new) course right now and it’s great!


    • Hi suZen – You’re back! Have been thinking of you this week on the beach. Thanks so much for your lovely, affirming words. And yes, there are so many opportunities, aren’t there? Both inner and outer. A banquet, one might say! Hugs to you!

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