Can Our ‘Ghost Lives’ Help Us Make Wiser Choices?

Caring for our aging parents can prompt unexpected and profound questions about our lives. Cheryl Strayed's extraordinary book, "Tiny Beautiful Things", helped me to process one of them.

Have you discovered the book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar?

If not, you are in for such a treat. And if you have, you'll know just what I mean when I say it's an illuminating, moving and transformative piece of writing.

Ostensibly a collection of advice columns written under the pseudonym "Sugar" by best-selling author Cheryl Strayed, the book has inspired an almost fanatical following among women. Even - especially - women who aren't into self-help books.

More philosophical insight than stereotypical advice book (liberally peppered with profanity and harrowing stories from Cheryl's own life), it's an excellent companion to dip into when you want to be inspired, consoled or instructed on where to begin to unravel one of  life's gnarly questions.

Recently I did just that, chancing on Column #71: The Ghost Ship That Didn't Carry Us. It's a column that addresses one man's struggle with the ambivalence he feels about becoming a father. 

On a deeper level, it's a reflection on the ‘ghost lives' that haunt us all.  Strayed examines whether and how we can find meaningful answers when arriving at the turning points where life asks 'which way' and ‘what if.'

While the question of whether or not to have children is a ship that sailed for me long ago, I still found the man's dilemma and Strayed's advice compelling and deeply moving. It made me reflect on all the other moments in life that require choosing one thing, and in so doing, leaving behind another.

Strayed's advice beautifully articulates how best to make those kinds of decisions. She writes:

Dear Undecided,

There's a poem I love by Tomas Tranströmer called "The Blue House." I think of it every time I ponder questions such as yours about the irrevocable choices we make. The poem is narrated by a man who is standing in the woods near his house. When he looks at his house from this vantage point, he observes that it's "as if I had just died and was seeing the house from a new angle." It's a wonderful image—that man among the trees—and it's an instructive one too. There is a transformative power in seeing the familiar from a new, more distant perspective. It's in this stance that Tranströmer's narrator is capable of seeing his life for what it is while also acknowledging the lives he might have had. "The sketches," Tranströmer writes, "all of them, want to become real." The poem strikes a chord in me because it's so very sadly and joyfully and devastatingly true. Every life, Tranströmer writes, "has a sister ship," one that follows "quite another route" than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.

And so the question, sweet pea, is who do you intend to be?

Wow. That is such a powerful image paired with an equally provocative question. Looking back on one's life from the end of it and asking yourself, who did you intend to be? Which of the many lives I could have lived were the best choice in helping me to arrive at that destination?

Certainly making the decision whether to enter parenthood is a milestone that fosters that level of soul-searching. Another juncture where it happens, I've been surprised to discover, is when we make the transition into a caregiving role for our aging parents. Watching my father navigate recent health care crises and trying my best to help where he'll let me, has provoked thoughts and questions about how I would navigate a similar situation.

I've had the opportunity to contribute to the caregiving of other elderly family members at critical moments as well.  It's quite a responsibility, almost a spiritual one, to care for someone as they come to terms with an end-of-life reckoning.

As I read Strayed's column I realized that she had expressed a question that had been percolating in the back of my mind as I tried to process these caregiving experiences, one I had never fully articulated.

The question is, how will I feel about the person I had become when - if - I reached my 80's or 90's?

Waiting until then to ask myself, "Who did you intend to be?" may only inspire irrevocable regret. Sadly, I cared for one family member who only got around to asking herself that question when she was in the hospital bed she would never leave.  It broke my heart to witness that, and I tried to provide solace as best I could.  But, I was at a loss as to how to do that.

Strayed's advice made me realize that examining the questions and opportunities posed by potential 'ghost lives' is not just something to consider at significant life junctures - who to marry, whether to have children.  It's also something that can be part of the fabric of everyday life. 

 As we enter mid-life, we begin to realize that life no longer holds an endless number of days in front of us.  'The days are long, but the years are short,' as the saying goes. Without realizing it, we can get so immersed in the familiar details of our lives, so caught up in caring for everyone around us, that we fail to consider the long view.

I realize that it’s not possible to get through life without regrets. But still, I can give it a shot. Envisioning my ninety-year-old self asking the person I am today 'who did you intend to be?', is a startling image.  And just the thing I need to ensure I have the best chance of arriving at the distant shore of old age with a minimum of regret and a maximum amount of joy. 

Join the Conversation

Do you have lingering regrets over roads not taken or lives you've chosen to leave behind? 

Have caregiving responsibilities and observations ever prompted you to reflect on your life choices?

If you considered the question 'Who did you intend to be?' from the perspective of your ninety-year-old self, what would you discover?