I’ve always been fascinated by Socrates’ bold statement that “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t say that the unexamined life is “less meaningful than it could be” or “one of many possible responses to human existence.” He and clearly says it’s not even worth living.
Why does he make such a strong, unequivocal statement?
Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth. We cannot grow toward a greater understanding of our true nature unless we take time to examine and reflect upon our life. As another philosopher, Santayana, observed, “He who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it.”
Examining our life reveals patterns of behavior. Deeper contemplation yields an understanding of the subconscious programming, the powerful mental software that runs our life. Unless we become aware of these patterns, much of our life is unconscious repetition.
Our society discourages self-awareness with its never-ending cycle of working and consuming that keeps us too busy to slow down for self-reflection.
As a psychotherapist, I see so many tragic examples of the effect of an unexamined life. I remember Melissa, a sensitive, attractive woman in her late forties who realized that a series of repetitive, doomed-from-the-beginning relationships had used up so many years of her life that it was now too late for her to realize her dream of a husband, home, and family of her own. I recall Donald, a caring, hard-working man who ignored his wife and family for too many years and found himself depressed and living alone in an apartment by the time he came to see me.
If only Melissa and Donald had taken the time to examine and reflect upon their lives as they were living them, they could have made changes and had a different experience during their lifetime.
The good news is that it is never too late to start examining our life more thoroughly — and to reap the rewards. Melissa never had the child she wanted, but she stopped recreating her past and eventually married a loving man who helped her heal her childhood wound of a father who deserted her. It was too late for Donald to get a second chance with his wife, but he built strong relationships with his children.
We all have blind spots. Sometimes when I examine a chronic problem in my life, I have that unsettling feeling that I must be missing something, but I can’t quite see what it is. We try to examine ourselves, but none of us can see our own backside (our “shadow”).
That’s why Socrates’ method of self-examination included an essential element that became known as “Socratic” dialogue. Dialoguing with a close friend, a spouse, a skilled psychotherapist, or spiritual adviser helps reveal those blind spots we cannot see by ourselves.
It’s a radical act to stop and contemplate your life. But according to Socrates, it’s the only thing that really matters.