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The One That Got Away

On Mourning a Love That Just Won’t Die

“A Dark Alley,” Kurt Bauschardt (used under permission of Creative Commons license).

A certain name pops up from time to time—in Facebook posts, Twitter recommendations, LinkedIn suggestions. Just her name alone can fill me with abject regret. She’s married now. But I avoid photos (particularly after a few drinks). I don’t want to see her in a wedding dress or cuddling a newborn. The less I know, the better. Because the idea of her embodies every bad decision and mistake I’ve made.

We all have one that got away. You might be happily married or decidedly single; it doesn’t matter. Everyone loves a good ghost story, and the mind is a haunted attic. Only, these objects of our imagination don’t always wait till night to make trouble. They torment us at will—in the first notes of an old song, the neon glow of some dive bar, your Facebook feed. These ghosts manifest the spirit of regret.

But regret isn’t always negative. It can motivate us. Without regret, we might live unmoored in an ocean of present-tense experience. Without regret, we might never right wrongs. Without regret, we might never know how good we have it now. But regret without reflection is just self-pity—and there are opportunities to wallow everywhere you click.

We’ve outsourced memory to Silicon Valley. Social apps are a form of mental cloud storage that catalog anyone you’ve met, everywhere you’ve been, any cooking triumph, and all the people you’ve dated. Mirroring the mind, they slowly agglomerate new information—subverting old memories, then displacing and suppressing them until they languish at the end of an un-scrollable thread. There’s efficiency in relying on an electronic record—freeing an otherwise over-taxed mind—so you can move forward in life unimpeded by the past.

Social technology seems indifferent by design. But its power isn’t always benign—particularly when apps resurrect lost loves and old friends better left to history. And now life is all the more oriented around the ones that got away. Reminders of your ex’s birthday can sting. There’s pain when she appears in a mutual friend’s photo and you realize she un-followed you somewhere along the way. His take on the president’s latest Tweet adds insult to the original injury.

But this resurrection isn’t limited to some passing mention of an ex. There’s an even more complicated version of a personal past that finds fresh breath in the lives of others. Much has already been written about the crippling anxiety we might feel scrolling through our social networks. In a post from December 2017, Facebook owned up to research that indicates people feel worse after “passively consuming” information on it and platforms like it. Speaking for myself, scanning posts that celebrate just about anything—the birth of a child, a new job, a completed marathon—almost always, on a primal level, inflames some degree of envy.

Of course, the lives presented to us are only half the story—a heavily redacted one at that. Still, it’s easy to overlook what was hidden in the first place. FOMO is as much about the anxiety of missing out as it is about the fear that life and its subsequent documentation (e.g., posts, pictures) soldiers on without you. It’s a sort of existential crisis that prompts an update on the old question: If you slip in the forest and no one was there to capture it on video, was the moment still viral?

Related to FOMO is the impulse to hold out for something better—call it an “OBO lifestyle.” The one that got away might also have been the one we disregarded. Something better could come along; committing now would preclude it. But the “or better offer” isn’t just what might come. It’s the countless offers we’ve already missed. To presume something better could come along implies a life that has never been good enough.

To be human is to miss out. And “passively consuming” another’s idealized life filters down through our consciousness like a version of the existence you might have once wished you had or, if lucky, the one you narrowly avoided. In capturing our own memories in indelible binary code, we project them into the minds of others. For some, this is likewise a passive enterprise. But to participate on any social platform (Medium included) is to enact one’s own personal branded experience—an effort to make an impression on others.

But back to me: I made a huge mistake. I was going though the worst period of my life (to date) and had no idea what I wanted or needed in order to get out of it. She would’ve helped, but I didn’t know how to ask for it. Even worse, I was certain someone else out there—someone I was yet to meet—could save me, well, better. The truth is, I had no idea what I really needed.

Psychoanalysis might say we all know what we want—we’ll just never get it, truly get it, ever. That elusive desire is the mother we completely possessed in our infantile fantasies, those omnipotent ideas of pervasive totality where it was just you and mom together. No one else mattered. More importantly, no one else existed.

The practice of analysis relies on acknowledging the significance of a preverbal, primitive state defined by basic need and the satisfaction of those needs. In this preconscious mode, nouns don’t exist. Hunger triggers cries that elicit milk. There’s no “mother” listening for that “cry.” There’s no “breast” or “covering” while she nurses. There’s no “rocking chair” or “lullaby.” In fact, there’s no “baby.” There is only need and satisfaction.

In adulthood, we (unconsciously) try to reclaim the kind of primal narcissistic bliss when basic need finds total satisfaction. We seek it on the couch with a therapist who hears us. We listen for it at concerts when a favorite band plays that song we fantasize was written with us in mind. We disappear into books that read as if the author were speaking directly to us. Food and sex provide somatic comfort. Religion and friends offer emotional solace. We look for that narcissistic union in moments of physical connection when it feels like the two of you (or more) have never existed apart. It’s in the hammock at the edge of the lake, the last dance at closing time, the sunset receding behind layers of orange hues at the end of the earth.

There are plenty of healthy surrogates for the primal comfort we found in our early caretakers. Everyone feels anxiety, everyone has a unique method for alleviating it, and everyone deserves whatever he or she needs to get through. But it can be easy to lose the distinction between healthy and pathological defenses. Social media straddles that line. Drugs return us to the infantile preconscious state of bodily bliss when we were unencumbered by life’s struggles. Likewise, we might turn to Facebook to indulge in fantasies of being someone else—perhaps that stranger sitting hand-in-hand with a lover in the golden light of a picture-perfect sunset.

And the temptation to turn one’s back to the sun and freeze time in a photo stems from the same impulse that drives our longing for the one that got away. See, that “one” doesn’t even have to be a person. It can be an idea: a camping trip you skipped to study for a final, the game you missed because you couldn’t afford a ticket, that job you declined hoping something better came along.

The selfie is merely an expression of the impulse to stave off the regret that comes with making choices—material evidence we submit to the court of memory in testifying to a life well-lived. And as a means to connect with others, these photos tend to share a common visual language: a perfect stack of waffles implies brunch with friends, that killer outfit in the mirror suggests an evening out, the hazy eyes of a postcoital embrace signifies, well, real love. We find solace in the shared expression of the pursuit of connection. And we document it in a common language because we all feel the same unspoken longing when life—in the moment—doesn’t quite live up to the past in pictures.

So when I see photos of a friend with his beautiful family and lovely home, I’m caught in a clash of two fantasies: my idea of what this image means to me and his idea about what it’s meant to represent. I can be tortured by the vision of a present tense I lack; he might be buoyed by sharing the version of the life he wants to convey. But both experiences betray a fundamental misapprehension: life is never what we think it is and rarely what we proclaim it to be. We are all players in a basic fiction, of the stories we tell others and the tales we imagine.

Beneath our layers of defenses, we all live with some underlying form of regret. (If you live completely free of disappointment, I envy your methods and would pay to learn them. Unless it entails renouncing all earthly pleasures, that is.) You might mindfully shed expectations. But the mind isn’t structured to make this easy. We all have aggressive impulses and powerful needs. It takes immense strength to renounce all drives. As an analyst, I would say that it takes a concerted effort of suppression verging on pathological.

Still, to shed expectation is to have once had. To have had is to have desired. And to desire is to be human. In rhetorical moments like this, one can turn to the French analyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan. He believed everyone has a basic lack that originates at childhood. This need sparks desire precisely because it can never be satisfied. (And, according to him, the sooner you accept that the better.) But the impulse to fill that lack—perhaps with some substitute like sex, songs, or sunsets—is what gives life meaning. To live creatively is to seek out new and surprising ways to fill this void. I, for example, face my lack by trying to articulate it in words—in this case, through the one that got away.

But unlike that one, this lack will never go away. Just as she could never fill the void in me even if she magically returned, any substitute is a placebo. She couldn’t occupy the hole in my heart because she is the hole, personified. The one that got away is an effigy filled with our hopes, regrets, wishes, and near-misses. We can either whack away at it until the past rains down or leave it hanging in the town square—in memoriam.