“Life has a gap in it, it just does.” Most of us will nod along with Margot, the protagonist of writer and director Sarah Polley’s new film Take this Waltz. Too often, however, our thought that it must be possible to fill this gap is mistaken. A life, like a garden, is a system in which some things need space around them in order to flourish. Cram too much in and what once grew happily can struggle and wither.
Of course everyone ideally wants what is “just right”. But striking the right balance is difficult, arguably even more so because the zeitgeist has the wrong idea about what is enough. Whether we err on the side of too much or too little makes a huge difference.
In the western world, we fear missing out more than we do excess. Living life to the full means filling it as much as possible, and so spaces are hard to tolerate. The radically counter-cultural view is that it is better to have too little than too much. For one thing, as all the great wisdom traditions have taught, learning to be satisfied with little makes us calmer, less anxious and more able to deal with the imperfections of life. Wanting the maximum, in contrast, makes us grasping, constantly aware of what we do not have.
Too much also tends to spoil what you already have, whereas too little at least preserves it. Overeat and the dinner is spoiled by nausea and indigestion. Leave the restaurant a little hungry and at least you haven’t ruined your enjoyment of what you have had.
That does not mean we should be happy for our life gardens to contain large, uncultivated areas, of course, or that we should not put in something extra that will flourish if we see the opportunity. Making the most of your limited life need not mean hankering after a different or bigger one. But it does suggest that if you spy a gap, as Margot’s friend says: “Don’t go crazy trying to fill it.”
An entertaining and potentially revelatory self-development exercise is to imagine alternative lives. The idea is that this may lead you to neglected aspects of yourself that could do with some attention. What do you fancy being? An opera singer? A monk? A foreign correspondent?
It can be tantalising, a bit like walking up a lovely mountain path and noticing trails going off in all sorts of intriguing directions. With the best stamina in the world you can’t explore all of them, but you can’t help wondering what breathtaking panoramas you might be missing. Similarly, even if you are happy with your life, there will always be alternative paths – desires, potentials and capacities that you could develop – but you can’t know where they might lead.
Sometimes responding to the lure of such dormant potentials is easy: we can just choose to cultivate a certain quality a bit more. You may not be able to go for a complete life change, but perhaps you could still join a choir, make room for contemplation, do some travelling – or even read more travel books.
At other times it’s trickier: you’ve become aware of nurturing an inner sculptor, say, but sculpture doesn’t quite fit into your already overcommitted life. It’s even harder when it comes to relationships, since rarely do we get everything we need from one person, and it could be unwise to keep chasing perfection when good enough is … well, good enough.
There are times when accommodating an undeveloped potential requires radical life shifts, but how do we know when such a big adjustment is in order? Of course there are no off-the-shelf answers, but you could ask yourself a few questions. One is how urgent the need to change direction is, how important it is to have this missing ingredient in your life. Another is to what extent you are genuinely dissatisfied with your life rather than just responding to a fleeting curiosity or passing cloud of boredom.
Gaps are part of the human condition, so we can never fill them all. The point is deciding which ones we can live with.
Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini’s book “The Shrink and The Sage” is available in paperback (Icon, £9.99). To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org