Catalyst Health, Wellness and Performance Coaching

The Road Not Taken? Regrets (or not) About Our Unled Lives - Dr. Andrew Miller (#120)

August 19, 2020 Dr. Andrew Miller Season 3 Episode 56
Catalyst Health, Wellness and Performance Coaching
The Road Not Taken? Regrets (or not) About Our Unled Lives - Dr. Andrew Miller (#120)
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Catalyst Health, Wellness and Performance Coaching
The Road Not Taken? Regrets (or not) About Our Unled Lives - Dr. Andrew Miller (#120)
Aug 19, 2020 Season 3 Episode 56
Dr. Andrew Miller

Do you catch yourself looking back on specific crossroads in your life and wondering What If? In this fascinating discussion with Johns Hopkins Professor Andrew Miller will take you down the path of the road not taken, and what it means for our current health, wellness & performance. Dr. Miller is the author of a new intriguing, thought-provoking book titled "On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives." You will no longer look at the forks in your life's road the same after hearing this week's episode.

Show Notes Transcript

Do you catch yourself looking back on specific crossroads in your life and wondering What If? In this fascinating discussion with Johns Hopkins Professor Andrew Miller will take you down the path of the road not taken, and what it means for our current health, wellness & performance. Dr. Miller is the author of a new intriguing, thought-provoking book titled "On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives." You will no longer look at the forks in your life's road the same after hearing this week's episode.

Dr. Cooper:

Welcome to the latest episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness, and Performance Coaching podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Bradford Cooper of the Catalyst Coaching Institute. And today's episode takes us down a road, less taken in the world of health, wellness, and performance. For the first time in 120 episode history, we welcome an English professor as our guest , and you'll be very glad we did. Professor Andrew Miller of Johns Hopkins university is the author of the new book on not being someone else Tales of our Unlived Lives. As soon as I saw the title and the review of the book in the wall street journal, I knew he would provide us with some interesting food for thought . Then after reading the book, it was even more clear about the value of this discussion for those of us who hopefully are on the path toward this idea, of better than yesterday. This one will definitely get you thinking. By the way, the timing of this interview happened to align very nicely with the latest details about our September 19th and 20th hometown coaching retreat and symposium. This Is the only retreat devoted specifically to health and wellness coaches, it's not simply a virtual version of our traditional retreat. Instead, it's something we created from the ground up in 2020 to provide you the opportunity to consider where you are now, where you're heading and the best way to get there, all while earning continued education credits that can be applied to either 2020, or 2021 reporting period. You can check out all the details at CatalystCoachingInstitute.com or as always feel free to reach out to us [email protected] Now let's start down the path of understanding where we've been, who we are and what it means with professor Andrew Miller on the latest episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness, and Performance Coaching podcast. Professor Miller, what a privilege. This is going to be fun. Thanks for joining us on the show.

Professor Miller:

Thank you so much for having me. I'm glad to be here. Looking forward to it.

Dr. Cooper:

We don't have a lot of English professors. In fact, I think you're the first on our podcast , but my friend, as soon as I saw the title of your book on not being someone else, Tales of our Unlived Lives, I knew I just was like, this would be a great topic for our audience. What initially took you down this path of exploration?

Professor Miller:

I'll try to give a short answer though, I think it's a long story. In my thirties, so about 20 years ago, a number of things happened within a short period, a few years. I was working at a wonderful university, Indiana university in Bloomington and was granted tenure, which meant that I had a long story stretching in front of me, potentially one that lasted till retirement. I could continue to work in this job that mattered so much to me. And then soon after that I got married, which was the beginning of another very long story, a story that will last even longer till death do us part and in a year or so, my wife and I had children. We have three children and our first child Sophia died shortly after she was born. So we became, and this is another story that lasts, you know, you're a parent forever. And in some sense, you think about your children living after you. So there's some way in which that role extends even beyond your death. So I was starting these long stories and complicated ones, especially the story of parenting when my wife and I had Sophia and she died, we knew that we were parents, but we were parents in this, in this odd way for a year or two before we had Cass and then Ben. So these long stories started , and it turns out that these stories in the book that I wound up writing stories of career and marriage and parenting are the long stories that people writing literature tend to focus on. Also the story of , of surviving loved ones who die so reflected on this kind of conjuncture of events in my life at the same time that I was reading , in my work reading novelists and poets, who focused on the characters, who looked back on their past, saw where they had been and imagined what would have happened had they gone down a different road, if these long stories had taken them someplace else. Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost, a number of writers who think about unlead and write about unlead lives. So I started asking myself, well, why should literary figures, why should writers be so interested in this story, this story of unlead lives . So it was a combination of what was going on in my own life and what was going on in my work, the material I was working on. And I soon realized as I was thinking about this and talking with people about it, that it was a story that interested both specialists , but also , nonspecialists. And non-academics, I would talk to people and say, I was working on this and they would stop me and say, Oh yeah , yeah, let me tell you about the life I'm not living. You know , if only, my brother's an investment banker and we started in the same place, and he's a kajillionare now, and I'm doing this, or, you know, if only this had happened, I would have . So I realized, Oh, this may be a topic that would interest more people than the specialist who I had been working on with before. So that's how it started.

Dr. Cooper:

Absolutely. And, for a lot of our audience as health and wellness coaches, they're talking to clients every day that are saying if I only would have, or I regret this or that. And I'm hoping out of this comes the thought process of what we can do in the midst of that. So, excellent. On page 75, you discuss the stories we tell ourselves that create our infrastructure, that we then see other things in our lives that build around that and pretty much sets the line. It's kind of like the bridges and the highways, that kind of thing specifically, you're talking about Amir and Ms. James, but can you broaden that out for our listeners about this concept of this process in their lives?

Professor Miller:

Sure. One of the things I like about this topic is that it's one that a number of different kinds of experts have worked on , psychologists and philosophers , especially as well as creative writers. And in, for all of these people, what we're studying is stories , stories that as you say, create this sort of infrastructure for our life to give our life meaning. Now you could think about your life and, and we do in lots of different ways. You need to think about your life as having a path or much less a forked path. You could think about your life as being, for instance, a card game, right? In which you're dealt cards and you play , you play well or you play poorly. Win tricks or you don't, that's one metaphor or story form for your life. But one very powerful one in our culture is this story of the road that has a journey that you're traveling on. And in the case of the stories , I'm interested in a forked road. So once, so that is already an infrastructural piece, which shapes a lot of our thinking about life. If , for instance, you are less likely to think about the conditions under which you were born if you think about your life as a journey, then if you think about your life as a card game, because when we think about life as a card game, we think, Oh, well, what cards were I dealt, right? Oh, it turns out I was dealt this being born into a family that was poor or rich or lived here, lived there, lived in the 21st century or whatever. Well, if you think about your life as a, as a road that's , with a forking path, you, of course you can think about why your life is in this landscape rather than landscape. It's not that these stories absolutely determined the way that we think, but they nudge us this way or that way. And the story of the life , as a path nudges you towards thinking about forking roads and choices you might take or might not take. And then once you've done that, once you've got that infrastructure in place, it's very, it becomes a habit. And you decide that of all the kajillion million things, choices you've made and all of the kajillion million chances that happened to you, this one, this particular one, this moment on this day, when this happened, when you decided not to take that job, or when he said no, when you asked him out, or when that moment that's the important one and my life forked at that moment. And I went this way rather than that way. Well, of course you could have picked any other moment. Our lives are, they're forking moments all throughout our life, right? But once we pick this one or that one, or these several as the important ones, well , we build up a sense of ourself around them. This is who we are, the person who's taken this path rather than that one. And it's very hard then, I would think part of the work, I don't know, but I would imagine part of the work of a, of a coach and certainly the work of a therapist is often to undo that infrastructure and give you a sense of freedom back in your life. After you've built up these confining stories or infrastructural stories. So that's one way of thinking about that.

Dr. Cooper:

Oh, there's so many ways I want to go with this. We'll come back to that. Let's pop over to Robert Frost, the road, not taken, a huge role in your book. You keep coming back to that, but as I read your book, it wasn't what I thought it was. You , in fact, your quote is it remains a mysterious piece of writing. Can you kind of walk us through some of your insights about this poem, that everyone will recognize pieces of it, but maybe very few actually understand where he was going with this.

Professor Miller:

Sure. Yeah, I'd be happy to. I knew pretty early that I needed to deal with the Frost poem. And I have to say I was a little embarrassed about it and a little wary exactly, because it was so familiar. And I thought, Oh, if I include this, people will just think, Oh, we already know all about this. We know what this guy is going to talk to us about. This is the road not taken. Cause I've read this poem. But I finally, I said , okay, let's spend some time with it . Don't be scared. Let's spend this time with this poem. And it turned out to be a , as I say, a much more mysterious poem than I had remembered. It matters to me in the book and it plays such a central role in part, because it's so familiar to people, but also because it provides a kind of template for the stories that I then studied. The rest of the stories in the book, don't follow this template exactly, that would be truly boring. But they vary it in all sorts of interesting ways. And it's that template, the features of that template are this, that , the elements of it are that there's one person and two roads that person pauses and looks back, there's a retrospection and then compares the two roads. And that, that those elements are combined and recombined in all sorts of different, interesting ways and novels and films and poems all over the place. So I think if it's all right, I'll read it because it might be helpful. It's not too long and it might be helpful to have it in , in our heads as I talk about it.

Dr. Cooper:

Yeah. I think that'd be great. Yeah, that'd be great. And I think folks listening to this really tune in, because if you're anything like me and he does this early in the book, I had that thought coming in. Oh yeah, yeah. I know that one. And then as we got into it, I realized I had no idea, so valuable stuff.

Professor Miller:

So there, there are a couple of things in addition to encouraging you to think about those elements as you listen , there are a couple other things I'd pay attention to. First, how mild the speaker's voices, he's just recounting this story. But at the same time, how extravagant the wish is, to wish to be at the beginning, you'll hear, I'm sorry I could not travel both roads and be one traveler. Well, that's an extravagant wish. That's a wish to be two people at once. It's a wish to not be a human being anymore, which is, you know, I mean that's extreme. And yet it's told in this very mild way and that that mix of extremity and calm is characteristic of many stories. So for instance, another very common , or very familiar text is it's a wonderful life. The film, which is also in a way, you know , very mild, very and is telling, very sweet . It's got Jimmy Stewart, you know, I mean , it's very composed and, but again, it's about this guy thinking that he didn't want to live ever, and that he wants to kill himself. So I'm interested in the mix of mildness and extremity here, but also more than that , I'm interested in the way the poem repeats itself. You get all these repeated words, you'll hear the word and repeated over and over again. And you'll hear the word I, and you'll hear phrases repeated most importantly, the first phrase in the poem. So keep your ears open for that. All right. Here is the road less traveled by Robert Frost. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry, I could not travel both and be one traveler long. I stood and looked down one as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth then took the other just as fair and having perhaps the better claim because it was grassy and wanted wear, though as for that, the passing there had worn them really about the same. And both that morning, equally lay in leaves, no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet, knowing how way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a wood. And I, I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference. So I first noticed how the last, how the end, I took the road less traveled by two roads diverged in a wood, repeats the first line of the poem. The poem seems to return and double back on itself or to repeat where it's been. And then I noticed that the word and at the beginning is repeated several times. And, and always at the first, the beginning of the launch , if you're looking at the poem on the page it jumps out, there's three ands. And then there's several more later in the poem. So as you read it, and as I read it aloud, I hear these phrases or these words. And then I hear them again later. And in my ear, I still have the first occasion of those words. So there's a sense in which I'm moving forward. I'm stepping along in the poem, I'm moving into the main figures future in a way. But I also carry along with me the memory of where I've been in the poem and that mix of moving forward, but looking back and in particular, looking back with your language so that though he knows he can't go back physically, actually, he's not going to go back. His words can . So with his language, with his story that he's telling, he goes back and re-imagined his path past and path . And that's really what all of these stories do. They are about someone who can't go back and his life or her life, their life, but who, with their words and their imagination, go back . So this poem is interesting to me it's valuable for me because it gives that template that I was talking about one person, two roads, retrospection, and comparison that you see so often, but it also has this other feature, which is in, I came to see was in other poems and stories of a return through language or through storytelling. So this is the role that literature has to play here is to be able to go back for us and to imagine what we've reimagined, what we've done and what we might've done. So that's the way it's after I still stayed with the poem for a while and thought about it and read it slowly. One of the things this book is about my book is about, just about the importance of reading slowly and receptively of the things you read. Reading slowly I realized, Oh, wait a minute. This is actually a very different poem from what I thought or a much richer, more interesting poem than I thought. And , so that's how I came to have it there near the start of the book.

Dr. Cooper:

And tell me if I'm off track here. But when I think of that poem, I think it's a calling to go, not against the grain, but to take that road less traveled, that alternative that the crowd isn't following, but that's where there's so much more, he's not saying that was the better road. He's saying that was a road that I chose.

Professor Miller:

Yes. So another, another feature of this that's curious is that it's really not why he took the road he did, or he says I looked down the one that to where it been in the undergrowth and took the other, which was just as fair. And actually it may be had the better claim for me because it was grassy and wasn't worn. And then he says, but as for that, the passing there had really w orn them about the same in both lay i n leaves, no step to trodden back. So he looks back and this seems to me to be important too, he looks back and he thinks well maybe the other one was better. Maybe it wasn't I 'm, I'm actually not, I'm not really sure. And of course, one of the things these stories do is they mislead us. All of them mislead us in a way, because who knows what that other path w ould h ave been like. I mean, we don't know, we congratulate ourselves to think often, to think that we know that it's because this happened to us, then this happened to us. And because we chose this, then this happened to us. It's hard to know whether that's the case, you know, and things that actually happened to us, what caused what, but to know what didn't happen. To note, to know how your life would have been, if you had gone to a different college or if you'd been able to go here or there. So these stories, there's a kind of flattery about these stories, but to suggest that we can know that much, but frost here in many of the other stories is all, Frost is saying, well, we don't really know. I don't really know. Yeah. So there's a kind of humility that some of them are asking for in that regard,

Dr. Cooper:

That leads nicely into the next one on page 49, you talk about these three distinctions, the desire for change, the desire for replacement, and finally the desire for an N plus one or an N minus one. Could you walk us through those a little bit? So we understand where you're coming from there.

Professor Miller:

Sure. The desire to be someone else to have to live the life, a life that you haven't led is something that philosophers have been thinking about since the very, very beginning. Aristotle wrote about this and contemporary philosophers also think about this in the middle of that story, more or less. The philosopher famously said, what's the use of wanting to be the King of China? Wouldn't it be the same as if God were to create a King of China, a new King of China, this new creature, and destroy me, right? If you were completely going to become the King of China, you would lose yourself. Right? And so what , what's the gain there ? Philosophers, this sort of example, occurs to philosophers. A lot people that are becoming Kings, people become Napoleon a lot in their stories. They tend, philosophers tend to imagine themselves having these very exalted roles and then explaining why, why they're not taking them. So that's, that's replacement, right? You're replacing yourself as someone else and the point is that logically, that makes no sense. Other people explained that actually psychologically, we don't want it either. This wonderful writer, William Haslett says, well, okay, maybe I want to be an angel. He says, but I'd like to have some part of me still me still be there so I can appreciate the change. You know, I don't want to be gone completely. I want to be around to enjoy the benefits of being in this new, new role. So there's replacement, which is, which is kind of misguided for those reasons. And then there's, then there's what I talk about when I talk about N plus one. So there's a wonderful literary critic, not always entirely lucid , but a wonderful British literary critic, William Empson who says, talks about the ability we'd have while being in one place. Here I am at this desk with this book in front of me, I'm right here to be in this one place, nonetheless, to be in another place at the same time through reading. And he describes this as kind of as, as N I'm here N, plus one. And , he was fond of, of math. So there's that, that your life is added to, you get an additional , you live your life and you get to live this other life that you're living through the book you read now, that's all good. And it makes you sound, it makes it seem like, Oh, well , this is a lovely thing to be able to live your life and some other life at the same time. But sometimes, and this is me now, not Empson, sometimes reading another life, reading about another life makes you feel worse about your own, right? So you read and you think, Oh yeah, but sitting in this chair here in Baltimore, Maryland during COVID, when I can't really go out at all, I'd much rather be in this book. So actually reading about another life makes me feel worse. It seems to subtract from my life, makes my life feel lesser. So I imagine that as being N minus one. So I want, I wanted in the book to kind of clarify, I think our thinking about these things is muddy. When we say we want to be someone else, sometimes we imagine we want to replace ourselves with someone else. But as I say that, that doesn't really make sense. And then, but then if we want another life, it's important to think in addition to ours, what is it going to make you feel better? Is it going to make your life seem better richer, or is it going to subtract? There's that wonderful song, I'll be thinking of you, which I know best the Billie holiday version, where she says, I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be thinking of you. And well , does that take away? She's seeing the moon in her life, but she doesn't really see it. She sees this person who's not there. And it's a very doleful and sad song.

Dr. Cooper:

Love it, love it. All right . So let's jump forward to very last page. And I know your goal was not practical. You know, let's try to improve things here and we'll unpack that a little bit later, but on the final page, you note, all you can do is try to see the bright fleshed present truly. And in seeing it, join it. And then a few lines later, you continue by saying to touch it with repeated dabs . And I'm picturing a painter here. If I read it right with repeated dabs of the word, this, this, we say, this. There is so much there. Can you begin to unpack that for us?

Professor Miller:

Well, I'm glad it, I mean, a couple of times you've said how much there is in these words and that's great. I'm grateful to you for saying that because one of the things I wanted to do in this book was to give readers of what I write as well as readers of this poetry and stories, a sense that words and language that we look at and can rush over that, that really, if we read it patiently and thoughtfully, there's more there than we thought. And that experience of encountering words or beyond that encountering anything and thinking , Oh, this is actually richer than I thought it was. That's an experience that I really try to convey when I teach, when I write. So I'm glad that you had that effect , that that's the very end as you say, the very end of the book, I've been talking about a wonderful poet , Jane Hirschfeld, and a poem, she has called , history as the painter Bonnard. So, and I need to give you a little backstory about that, just to make sure that those lines make some sense. So the story about pier Bernard, who is , kind of the same time, late 19th, early 20th century at the same time as Matisse and Picasso, maybe lived longer or lived into the 20th century. So the story goes that Bonnard was arrested once with his paintbrush and his palette in his hands, in front of one of his own paintings, which he was correcting. So he seemed, and he also evidently went in and broke into, I mean , the story is broke into houses of people who'd bought his paintings. And because he thought that the paintings weren't really perfect, weren't really finished. So he went back to them and corrected them. And so Jan Hirschfeld starts with that story or assumes that you know that story. And there's actually a word that, that artists in the story use Bonnarding, meaning to correct what you've done. I'll read a little bit of this just so I can get to that last line. One thing to know here is that the word Penta mentee is a, is a word again in art criticism. It's a wonderful word. It means in Italian, it means regret, but what it's a word for are the things that the artist paints over. So say you paint a pear or something on your painting, and then you realize, actually, I don't want that pear there and you just paint over it. Well, they're often visible the things that you painted the first time and they're called. If you can see them, the original things are called penta mentee. So here's a little bit from that poem. Because nothing is ever finished, the painter would shuffle Bonnarding into galleries, museums, even the homes of his patron with hidden palette and brush over scribbled drapery and table with milk jug or fatten pear, the clabbered ripening colors of second sight. So, and she goes on, this is another story like Frost of somebody returning here, the painter returning back to what he's created and wanting to fix, right? One reason why we want to go back obsessively to what we've done in the past. If we think that that's unhappy, the past is unhappy is we want to fix it. Well, Bonnard wants to go back into it , wants to return to fix this. And as I say, that's one thing that these stories are all are about, is the desire to return with your words or in his case, to return with your paintbrush and to work over what you've done in the past. But throughout the course of the book, growing through the course of my book was for me, was this realization that there's a counter story there to that desire to return, to imagine the other life and other life and to make the life that you've led more like this other life. And the counter story that came more and more to the floor, the more I read the desire simply to accept the world as it is rather than trying to go back and fix it. But to just to see it, what is in front of you see it clearly as you can, and to , with your words or your imagination or your whatever powers of receptivity, you have to be, become intimate with it. So it goes on saying though, he knew with time the Penta mentee, right , half visible, half brine swept fish, they're plunged to shapes pocking the mind. Toward the end, only revision mattered to look again more deeply harder, clearer. The one redemption granted us to ask this, we say is what we meant to say this, this as the kiss, the sorrowful murmur may cover a child's bruises, if not retract the blow. So the picture that Hershfield has there is that the painter like a parent who's hit her child and wants to make it better, the pain or touching the world with his brush, kissing the world as the mother does, or as the poet does taking her words and putting them up to the world as best she can, this, this, they say to try to get as close and as intimate, not to the world as it might've been, but to the world, as it actually is in front of us. And so my ending with the words, this, this, we say this with these repeated dabs of words is an attempt in the writing of my book to leave the reader with that receptivity, that attentiveness, that intimacy with the world as it is without denying that one of the things this world has, one of the things we do as humans seems to be, to go back into imagine things otherwise. I'm not erasing that, that's what we do. That's how that's part of what the imagination is. It's a splendor as well as sometimes a pain, but there's also this desire to be intimate with the world as it is. And in fact, the more, some of these writers and my hero in the book really is the writer, Virginia Woolf . She's wonderful at this. The more somebody imagined the world as it might've been as it could have been imagined your life as it might've been the more by contrast the power of these moments when all that fades away and you just see the world as it is in front of you, and you're grateful for it , for it's being there and for your being there, the more powerful those moments are. So that's what I hope to leave people with.

Dr. Cooper:

Well, I think that, that was the message I took out of that last, essentially a paragraph was exactly what you just said. I love that. Um, what you were just saying there reminded me, and I just found it on page 16. If art is a matter of choosing among possibilities, then a successful work of art is one that further alterations won't improve. It's finished when any change would be for the worse , where does that fit into this conversation? That's ,

Professor Miller:

I'm glad you asked that, that that took, that took me awhile to figure out. So , um, let's see if you think about your life, if you look back at your life and you , um, imagine, and you're , you're kind of obsessive about , uh, or may overstate it , but you really want to , uh, make your life as good as it can be. And I think a lot of the impulse behind the desire to go back and , uh, change, take a new road is a desire to , uh , make your experience to gain your experience. So that it's perfect. I say jokingly early on, I imagined being a dinner, you know, and you, you've got several things on the menu and you say, okay , I'll have, I'll have this. And then your neighbor gets the dock or something. And you're like, Oh man, I should've gotten that. And there's a kind of, or you know, the more serious things to imagining, Oh, if only I had done this in the past, well, there's a kind of flattery there to yourself because you're saying I may not be perfect. Now I may not have a great life. Now, there may be all sorts of problems. I'm a little overweight and I don't behave as nicely as I should have , but if only I had done this thing, I could have been much better. Maybe even I could have been perfect. So you may not be perfect, but you had the capacity to be perfect. So even yourself criticism can flatter you in thinking that you're potentially could have been perfect. Okay. So that's that some times a motivation for thinking about around led lives is that it leads lets us believe in ourselves as somebody who is capable of greatness. So, and it kind of parallel with literature. Um, there's a picture of art as Henry James is Novelis says basically life as we experience it as a mess, you know , it's , it's chaos. Well, art from that chaos selects things to create a sort of ideal order. So he says art is all selection. It's all chosen and ordered into this nice form. That's that's meaningful. Well, that picture, as certainly as James, didn't that picture of art as something which could not be made better, any change, the work of art would make it worse. It's as good as it possibly can be. That's a , uh , a way of thinking about art that these stories encourage because of this parallel, this thought that you want to change your , your life just enough. Exactly. Right? So that it becomes as good as it can be. Um, so too , you want to change a work of art so that it's as good as it can be. And that if you change it at all, any more change, any other path that you try to think, Oh, if I go down that path, that will be better. That's going to make it be worse. So that's a way of, it's a sort of aesthetic standard of standard for a work of art as one, which could not be made better. And it's a very , uh, with, by an agent. And it's very punishing, whether you're talking about a work of art or talking about your life, it's a very punishing way of thinking about the work of art or about, about yourself. And some of these stories, follow that and say yes, and some of them say, yes, this is the way you should think about your life. Yes. This is the way you should think about a work of art as James says , and some say, no, give that up. And so for instance, if you think about some wonderful life, you think about Jimmy Stewart, the Jimmy Stewart character, George Bailey, wanting to go back and, and feeling bad about himself because he's not lived as, as good a life as he could have, or should have a good life. For instance, as his brother, who's the hero, a good a life as his friend who becomes wealthy. And the end of the movie is really saying, no, that's not the way to think about your life. That's , that's a , that's a suicidal way of thinking about , uh , about your life. Don't think that way, give it up.

Dr. Cooper:

It keeps coming to my mind as you're talking us through, this is, it seems like if I'm obsessed as the word you mentioned, and I don't, I'm not sure if that's the right word, but regardless of Cisco with that. So if I'm obsessed with that fork in the road, and Oh , if I only would have taken, does that not become an excuse? Does that not let me off the hook for today? Does that not allow me to say, well, I would be that whatever role or I entrepreneur or that athlete or whatever, but I took the wrong road. And so now you're off the hook for today and exactly. Is there some point where you say, no, it's all okay. That was a different fork. What fork do you face today? And which one are you going to? And what are you going to do with the fork that you're on?

Professor Miller:

Yes. Right. That, that says, well, what I was trying to better, what I was trying to say a moment ago. Exactly. You it's, it can be a way of escaping , um , responsibility for where you are. Um , and it, and it does by imagining , um, that you could have been, you had the capacity to be this wonderful thing, which you're not one of the curious things about these , these stories as I started paying attention to them was that I did not expect this. It was that God's keeps showing up in them. They're keep being these divine figures who appear, but who appear and are unable really to do anything for people. I mean, they're , I would say they're kind of hamstrung divinities there , they're around, they're there, but they don't actually help people very much. And it's as if they're there to say yes, this, this could have been perfect. This could be, this could be perfect. You could have been perfect, but we , we are not doing anything to help you get there. And we haven't done anything to help you get there. So you're on your own, my friend, you , and if you've, if you're going to have a life that is a value it's yours to do, and it's not about what you're capable of , it's not about what you could have been. It's about, it's about what you are. So yes, I think you're right to say that it's this image of us as having potentially become some spectacular thing can, in some cases, get us off the hook for where we are. Now. I want to say that even while at the same time saying that it's an extraordinary thing to be able to do this, right. I mean, this is the life of the imagination too, so it can be good or it can be bad. All right . So that actually leads nicely

Dr. Cooper:

Into this next one, that the focus of the book is on looking back and wondering if our lives would have been different or better. If only for me that the thought that kept coming up to me, and it sounds like we're similar age, I'm 54. Uh, it took me down a different path of who can I be? What journeys can I pursue? I don't know if I'll die tomorrow or 50 years from now, but what journey is available rather than looking back, has that all been a common response? Is that something you're hearing from readers? And if so, actually, if so, or if not any advice you might provide to those of us who were kind of sent down that path as we read your book.

Professor Miller:

Yeah, it is. You're right. Um, in , in the way you describe the book and it's a book, which the best way for me to answer that, I guess is to say this, the book is really , uh, committed to the idea that the imagination, literature, films give our lives more meaning they're most important, not because we learn things from them. Exactly. Yes. You may learn. If you read a historical novel, you may learn about, you know, the French revolution or the American revolution or something. And that's good. I got, no, I got no complaints with learning, but what they really do or where they most, or what they do that nothing else does as well is to give our lives, keep us company. They keep us company, as we find meaning in our lives so that it becomes our lives become more significant. And these stories of our lives, I think, are doing exactly that and doing that by comparing where we are with where we might've been, where these characters are, that we're reading about. So the , the sort of advice that comes out of this book, isn't anything so practical as to say, well, you should, when you next confront a fork in your road, you should do this or do that. It's not even so practical as to say, don't look back at , at forks in the past, because there often is value in looking back past really the kind of final note of the book is that literature in giving us meaning in helping or contribute to the meaning that we have in our life, that itself, is that an end in itself. So to be able to think about your life painful or not, isn't, theirs is not really about happiness. I think we, we, before we want a happy life, we want a life that's full of meaning and literature, even if it makes us unhappy, helps us do that. So in some sense, the advice I have, this is the advice as somebody teaching it at teaching literature at a, at a university and a culture that values , uh, literature and values, culture less and less . This is my pitch. The advice that I have is read more and read more carefully and read slowly, and that will make your life better because it will make it more meaningful. Um, not necessarily because it will keep you from making mistakes, not because it will help you do this or that, but because it will make your life more meaningful. I can, I can say one more particular thing maybe. And this is , uh , about the emotions that these stories lead us to these stories about lives. We might've OLED most often are stories of regret, which is a curious thing. We look back on our past and more often we look back and think and feel regret, then relief. We could feel relief. And , and we do, sometimes we will say there, but for the grace of God, go on. I'm lucky to be where I am. Yes . But more often we look back and say, if only, so those are two emotions that we feel often. We can also feel envy. We can feel pride. We can feel a range of other things, but the, I think the most distinctive emotion that these stories cultivate encourage us is what I call a kind of heartbreaking beauty. And it's the feeling as we look back, as we think about what might've happened and what has happened, it's the feeling that this needn't have happened at all. I actually don't need to be here. And yet here I am this world, as it is right now, these two sprinklers, which are sprinkling on the grass in front, outside my window. And so that the grass is all glistening under this blue sky, with these green trees, none of this needed to be here yet. Here it is. So it's not that my life is going to end. It's not that this beautiful scene is going to end, but that it needn't have been here at all. And yet here it is. So the two things are that literature can give you a sense of meaning, a more meaningful life, and also that it can make you grateful for. I mean, it can do other things too. It can make you pissed off. It can make you urge you to action. It can make it a lot of things, but the kinds of stories I'm paying attention to make a grateful for what actually is here are the things that are here as you're looking at all the things that are not. So those, those are the two most obvious things that I think of you might take away is kind of words from the book.

Dr. Cooper:

You mentioned this idea of if only kind of the regret piece versus the, but for the grace of God go, I , um, does, and it's never, you're always a, or you're always be , but does your general trend, as someone reflects back on the words, they're choosing the things they're thinking about, the, the inquiry regrets versus the gratefulness, does that tell us something about ourselves that does th does person a tend to be more, you know what? I was really lucky. Yeah. It could have gone that way, but you know what happened right after that was boom, boom, boom. And that changed my life entirely. Or are we all over the place? Are there really no trends that at least in your chats , I'm sure people are asking you about this. I know you didn't study this specifically, but just some thoughts off the top of your head with that.

Professor Miller:

Well, it's interesting. I mean, I guess I'm hesitant to talk about actual human beings, but the literate . So what I know is the literature and it is remarkable that it is the regret rather than the relief, which seems to provide the great stories. The forking moments are really great opportunities for writers because they have drama, you know, what's going to happen. Is he going to go this way? That way? So there's a , that's a clear reason why stories like these sort of , uh, this, this metaphor, but they tend to be stories of regret. Now why that is, I don't know , uh , empirical psychologists, pretty good evolutionary psychologists have explanations for this, but, and I'm sure it tells us something about, you know, whether we're more optimistic, people are pessimistic people, something like that. Um, but I don't really have an answer to that , uh , beyond noticing that we , we tend to regret more than we're grateful.

Dr. Cooper:

Well, and you and I are chatting offline a little bit about, you know, the purpose of the book was not to create. If you do XYZ , you gain 5.4% in your productivity, or you'll live this many more years or those kinds of things. But, but the engagement in your life, the folks that are going through life, just checking the boxes and surviving the day , you know , getting through it and okay, where's Friday. What , how come Friday is not here yet? Oh, I hate Mondays, you know, whatever. It's like this, this pattern, the process you're taking us through this whole idea of , of reflecting and finding meaning and, and the reading of the literature and, and doing it slowly. It seems to me that changes your level of engagement. That as you think those things through, you're no longer waiting for Friday, you're thinking about, well, what what's happening today? What opportunities do I have today? What does that make sense at all? Is that something that you've experienced it a little bit?

Professor Miller:

Yeah. I, a couple of thoughts about that first. I was, well first, yes, I agree. Um, the , uh, there's a poem talk about early in the book by this guy, Carl Dennis called the God who loves you. And it's about a realtor. Who's driving home from work. And he clearly thinks about his life in terms of cops, you know , uh, how realtors regard the value of the house by, by comparing the, how this house with another house in the neighborhood. And that's the way he thinks about his life. And the poem is saying, no, no, no, no . Don't, don't think about your life that way. Think about your life in this other way that you just described. Years ago, I had a student in my office and I was thinking about the value of what I was doing. There's so much to, as a literature professor, there's so much in the world that is, could be better. And there's so many things that I care passionately about that I want to improve in the world. And I was musing with this student young person about the value of teaching literature. And she looked at me after a while kind of indulgently though. She was, you know, 15 years younger than me and said, well, I think making people's lives or letting people find more meaning in their lives. I think that's worth doing. And like , Oh yeah, I guess, I guess. Yeah . But however, I also want to say that it's not everything to be able to, and this is, I think, I mean, writing a book like this year , and you're encouraged to think about the books you haven't written, the things you haven't said, that , that you could have said one thing, if I were to write this book differently, one thing again, I would stress more is that these stories are stories of people typically in fortunate position, sir. So to be able to look back and think, Oh, if only I could have done that, if only well, that's, that's often a position of real luxury. And many of the people who I'm talking about here have the kind of comfort to take the time, right. And to look back and to think, and the stories are often about people who, you know , um , are well off, but want to be a little bit better off the metaphor. As I said, at the beginning of the metaphor of the forking road, doesn't really ask you to think about questions of justice that are built into the conditions into which we're born. So there's, there's plenty that this book doesn't do and plenty that's really important. And I think more precedent actually, but what it does do is what you said. It encourages people to see the meaning in the lives that they have in part, through the capacity of the imagination to see and imagine lives that they don't have.

Dr. Cooper:

This is so much fun. I've got one more question for you. I want to respect your time. We could spend three more hours very easily on this, but just in terms of, of kind of wrapping things up, tying a ribbon on it, any final words of wisdom for those who are wanting to help their coaching clients, or maybe friends, family, or maybe just in their own life. And considering this question of the UN lived life, and maybe some of the regret that might have come with it,

Professor Miller:

It's tough. You know, I mean, you're, you're talking to somebody that the reason that I wrote this book is because this is something that I do, you know, I'm, I'm constitutionally, somebody who looks back over or in the past has looked back over the things that I haven't done it and think, Oh, if only I had done this better , um , every grocery line I'm in, of course always goes much slower than the one next to it that I didn't choose. So I'm not, I'm not sure that you're, you're asking the right person for that . I think what I said earlier about the importance of thinking about your life, not as a journey necessarily, but as a place where you are now, my advice would be to, for all, I imagine a lot of work coaching people with their lives falls in readily with the idea of life as a journey, but having studied life as a journey for a decade. Now, the idea of life is a journey for a decade. I'm I think, yes, they're real strengths to it, but actually it's worthwhile giving that picture up. Um, maybe not all the time, you can't get rid of it all the time, but giving it up. And so saying, no, this, this, this what's in front of me. Now, what I have here now is I need to pay attention to that rather than lose myself in the past and try to find what might've been, but it isn't.

Dr. Cooper:

And with that extending that visual a little bit further, also not worrying about what's up around the next corner, but what this, this,

Professor Miller:

This, so it's so it's, so , um, that was well wrapped up, but I'm going to add one more thing. The there's a way in which at this moment, we're in a peculiar moment with the pandemic. You and I are talking , uh, in, in , uh, July, the it's the time of extraordinary stillness. The metaphor of a Groundhog day is all over the place. Every, every , uh, every day seems just like the one before it , we have a real scarcity of , of resources for us to make our lives different and new and fresh as we go in our isolation , um, day to day to day. But it's also a time of great collapse and revolt the economy collapsing the whole black lives matter social questions. So this time of oddly, a time of upheaval, as well as a time of stagnation, which is very, and , and just the day to day, I feel those two things at once are reading the news. You see those two things happen at once. It seems to me, that's a good moment for us to when so little is predictable about the future. When, who knows how long this pandemic is going to last, who knows what's going to happen to the economy. And so on this moment, when so little is predictable about the future, and yet, so many things seem urgent socially to step back and take a and say, wait a minute. Well, how do I want in this moment of calm and reflection? How do I want in a new way, in a, in a fresh way, how do I want to engage with the present as it is now, right in front of me, who knows what's going to be there? That's powerful. I love that

Dr. Cooper:

Fantastic way to wrap that up. How can I engage with right now, professor Miller? Thank you. This was fantastic. I really appreciate taking the time. Probably not your typical audience, but I think they're going to love this.

Professor Miller:

I'm glad to have it. Thank you so much for asking me. It was, I was , uh, glad to get to your invitation and even gladder now to have actually had the conversation. This is fine .

Dr. Cooper:

Thanks so much. You've already ordered the book amateur . Thanks again to professor Andrew Miller for his willingness to join us. Thanks to you for tuning into the number one podcast for health and wellness coaching. If you haven't yet subscribed to the podcast you might want to consider doing. So, our next set of episodes probably represent our most exciting series of interviews we've ever had scheduled back to back to back to back. I just keep looking at the schedule and thinking seriously, like, wow, I had no idea we would get here. So thank you for making that possible. Please also, don't forget about the YouTube coaching channel, which you can find at youtube.com/coaching channel. We now have over 60 freely available videos that cover health, wellness performance. And if your health and wellness coach, especially how to optimize your career and your toolbox, make it a great week as we enjoy pondering our unleaded lives. But more importantly, considering the lives, we still have to live as we move forward. This is dr. Bradford Cooper of the catalyst coaching Institute signing up, make it a great rest of your week. And I'll speak with you soon. The next episode of the catalyst, health, wellness, and performance coaching podcast, or maybe over in the new YouTube coaching channel .