The Unlived Life

“…on days like today, in places like this, in company like this, you get a glimpse of what it all might have been like: the unlived life, and how much happier it might have made me.”

If you’re not up-to-date on recent English history, it might surprise you to know that the recently-departed Queen, the one who reigned longer than any other monarch in history, was not supposed to be Queen. She was Queen because of the decisions of others. Her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne after just eleven months. He wanted to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson; for so many reasons at the time, as head of the Church of England, he simply could not if he were king. So he stepped aside, the only British sovereign to ever do so.

In his place came his younger brother, George VI, the one who famously struggled with public speaking. He led the nation through the Second World War, by all accounts doing so quite well. He had two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. After sixteen years of his reign, he passed away, leaving his oldest, just twenty-five at the time, as Sovereign.

Elizabeth was occasionally caught implying that she would have rather been a plain English countrywoman. She was happier in her muck boots in the farmyard than at state dinners with a tiara on her head. I suppose for a short time, as a little girl, she assumed that she would be just that: able to live her life in relative obscurity in the countryside, riding her horse daily and breathing the clean air. It’s understood that she was always happiest in Scotland for this reason. She spent nearly three months every year in the Scottish countryside, perhaps attempting to grasp at that existence that had escaped her.

Elizabeth II in 1936, the year her uncle abdicated

There’s an episode of The Crown which attempts to capture this desire of the Queen. Elizabeth is depicted having dinner with a childhood friend, one who has always shared her passion for horsemanship. They are sharing a meal after spending the day in the country, evaluating different horses and riding. She reflects, “Somehow today has managed to be one of the most enjoyable days of my life. And at the same time, one of the most depressing.”

She goes on, “This is how I’d like to spend all my time…It’s what makes me truly happy. And I actually think it’s what I was born to do…until the other thing came along…that someone else was born to do, that they elected not to do, which meant that first my father, and then I, had to do a job we were never meant to do.”

Though we can never attempt to relate to Queen Elizabeth’s life — she operated in a realm none of us will ever see — all of us might learn from her assumption of her role, a role she never desired. There come moments when all of us must make peace with closed doors. We must bow the knee to the Lord’s established will.

These circumstances creep up on all of us. Some are gradual in nature: we make tiny decisions day by day, and suddenly we find ourselves in a different spot than where we thought we would be. Some circumstances come in like a thunderclap: a death. A lost job. A divorce. A rejection.

Or sometimes, the differences are favorable for the most part, but on hard days, we still wonder what it might have been like somewhere else. And suddenly we are on an island, miles away from where we’d intended to be, grieving what might have been and confused about what happens next.

Those thoughts come up: what might have been. What might have happened. A different life.

On our best days, we want to channel Mary’s submission to God in Luke 1: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

But the decisions we make over the course of a lifetime don’t usually have the blazing certainty of an angel visiting us with a word from God. We take steps, we attempt to live faithfully, and eventually, we must make peace with the doors that have been closed to us. We might wonder what might have been, but we must walk forward into what is, trusting that the Lord will meet us there. I am reminded of the passage from Ecclesiastes:

I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Ecclesiastes 3:10-13

I am thankful for the Queen’s example in how we might welcome circumstances we would not have picked. The door was closed to her preferred existence when she was just ten years old, by the decisions of her uncle. She took on the role that was thrust upon her when she was just twenty-five. Later she would navigate the rumors and indiscretions of her family; untimely deaths, criminal behavior, and private matters made public. Who knows what tearful hours accompanied her through the “annus horriblus” of 1992.

By her own statement and others’ reports, she was a woman of deep Christian faith who no doubt leaned on prayer and meditation on God’s faithfulness to see her through. I am chastened to do the same.

(Plus, it couldn’t hurt to keep riding horses)

At age 94, during covid lockdown

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