The examined life is the only one worth living.
I’m flipping this phrase around. Whether it’s history or legend, we have this story set in Ancient Greece. A wise man called Socrates has started up a thriving school, and attracts the young people to his lectures. Socrates educates them, makes arguments, and draws them into thinking through their own opinions until they learn how to channel their feelings and observations into compelling arguments of their own. He teaches the youth to think! Freely! This is dangerous for those whose power relies on being able to successfully predict and persuade public activity. Socrates comes to stand trial on charges of corrupting the youth and impiety toward the gods. Thus prodded to abandon his discipline of critical examination, Socrates proclaims, “The unexamined life is not worth living!”
He is sentenced to death.
Partly out of a commitment to positive thinking, and partly out of a recognition of nihilism and the rampant disease of suicidal depression, I flip the exclamation around. I say the only life worth living is the examined life.
Now, I don’t mean examined as in your life is subject to the critical input of other people (who shouldn’t nose around in your business anyway). I also don’t mean examined as in documented–it’s not enough to record your life in journals, Instagram posts, and YouTube vlogs.
To live an examined life means to develop a habit of continually reflecting on what you’ve done, asked probing questions, and adjusted your actions according to what you learned by asking those questions. If you find yourself tired and unmotivated at the end of every day, routinely vegging out in front of the TV or Facebook feed, one day you might ponder whether your evening habits are contributing to your feelings of exhaustion and frustration. And if, hypothetically, you asked yourself about that, maybe you would find yourself confronted with an uncomfortable yes. So the only logical question that follows is What else could I be doing? Examination leads us to adjust course because examination means looking around and deciding to either be content or be motivated to change.
There are countless ways a person could construct an examined life. Some people pray, some people meditate, some people have regular appointments with licenses professional counselors. Some people have coffee with their friends who know them well enough to know when they’re honest and when they’re avoiding a sensitive subject. Some people call their mom, because mom is supportive and insightful. Some people don’t have moms like that, or friends to get coffee with; and before they can go soul-searching they go hunting for friends in places like bowling leagues, church guilds, and musical gatherings.
You find what works for you. You will know if it’s working because you ask yourself Is this working or not? And you don’t have to be very intelligent to hear the voice from inside your head respond with yes or no.
Here are a few practices that I do that actually work for me.
We will all die one day. One day your body will be cold, your skin gray, your mouth hanging open, your spirit departed. Some nurse will put you in a bag. Some chaplain will wheel you on a cart to a refrigerated room in a morgue, after which they will call a funeral home to come pick up your body and take you to be either embalmed or cremated. Nothing will be left of you but your name scribbled onto various documents or typed into various charts and messages. Your loved ones will embrace one another with warm tears, but your body will lie still and cold. So whatever is creating anxiety or tugging painfully at your attention, stop, close your eyes, and breathe. You are alive. There is still time. You are enough.
The best thing in the world is when I can miss my wife so terribly that it’s impossible to be mad at her. I think about the fact that she chose to spend her life with me. She’s joined me on some crazy adventures. She’s held her tongue when she knew it was better for my sake to be quiet. She’s spoken up when she sensed tension between us, even though she knew it upset me to be confronted with my feelings–risking some moments of discomfort for the sake of resolving the distance.
I have a playlist I made for us for Valentine’s Day a while back, and I just keep adding songs to it that remind me of us. When I listen to it, I think about her, and even if it’s a Tuesday night and she’s twenty minutes from home, it makes me miss her, and I cultivate the missing because it deepens the love between us.
There are friends I miss terribly. We all live far away from each other now. I confess that I’m terrible at calling to catch up, and I never seem proactive enough to invest in visiting them. I feel guilty about that. But I also really love it when we connect in a conversation on Facebook, and I try to take time to reflect on how much I miss them and how much my heart aches to have a glass of wine or to learn about a book they found inspiring.
3. Go to church.
Even for someone who’s spent years in ministry, seminary, and doing spiritual things, I’m uncomfortable telling people directly that I think they should go to church.
I really don’t want people to feel guilted into it. I honestly don’t value people less for choosing not to go to church. If you’ve got a spiritual or unspiritual habit of life that you chose intentionally, and it’s working, you don’t need to go to church. I’m really talking to people who, like me, often drift aimlessly waiting for someone to suggest the thing they can’t name on their own. So, you, who are unsure of where to go or where to find support to live an examined life, you should try church.
Church is valuable because it gathers all these different people who would probably never meet otherwise, and gives them some common ground to talk about life and questions of how we ought to live in the world around us. Not all churches are healthy, and not all churches are helpful for just anyone. Personally, I think the Episcopal Church is the best place to start because it’s got a strong grounding in historical Christianity, it tries hard to represent the many different perspectives and life experiences that history encompasses, and it works hard to practice healthy boundaries. So maybe that’s a good place for you. Maybe Methodism, Lutheranism, Catholicism, or Pentecostalism are more effective for you. You’re not going to find a supportive spiritual community that fosters healthy life practices by sleeping in on Sunday and watching TV.
Your attention is incredibly valuable. Give some to yourself. Love yourself as God loves you, and let that love create renewed life in you.
P.S. If you or someone love is at the point where life, examined or not, doesn’t seem worth living at all. Please call 1-800-273-8255, discuss your crisis with a trained volunteer at imalive.org, or chat anonymously with an active listener at 7 Cups of Tea.