The Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
I was drawn to this quote and its meaning when writing FLIGHT RISK. In the novel, successful, happily married man and devoted father Robert Besch is traveling for business when he survives a deadly plane crash. He manages to rescue fellow passengers from the burning plane, but suffers a rare dissociative fugue, forgetting who or where he is, and isn’t found for several days. During the time he was missing, he led a very different life, one that didn’t fit well within the boundaries of his normal life.
In one scene, Robert and his wife, Sasha, are meeting with a psychiatrist, discussing what happened to him and what he should do about it:
“Mr. Besch, you might want to explore the unconscious feelings and experiences that made you susceptible to this disorder. A good therapist could help in that regard.” Robert finally spoke up. “Unconscious feelings and . . . Come on. You just said it yourself—the plane crash is what led to this.” He faced Sasha. “You weren’t there. You don’t know. It was terrifying.” Sasha squeezed Robert’s hand in both of hers. His palm was damp and warm, despite the room being chilly and dry from the air-conditioning. Dr. Shaw nodded knowingly. “If you’re interested, I can recommend a number of strategies that may be of help to you,” Shaw said. “Seek out therapy, for one, that’s my first recommendation. You might also keep a daily journal of your thoughts and activities and carry it with you. Or even a voice recorder. This can help you stay grounded in the moment and more confident of your identity.” “I know who I am,” Robert said defensively. “I understand,” said Shaw. “I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But if I may add something on the philosophical side?” Please don’t. “It was Socrates who said the unexamined life is not worth living. You might come to feel that you owe it to yourself to explore what happened.”
But is the unexamined life—one that lacks deep personal reflection, moral examination, and self-evaluation—so devoid of purpose and meaning that it is not worth living? I see many people apparently quite content to live unexamined lives. They seem to skim along the surface of life, filling their days and hours with friends, families, food, hobbies, social media, screen time, vacations, and entertainment. Others may seldom examine their own life or the concept of life itself, yet live rewarding lives by helping others, volunteering, and acting in kind and loving ways. Is that not a worthwhile life?
A rigorous examination of life could lead to possible negative effects. If you engage in self-critical examination and deep analysis of life’s meaning, there’s a good chance you’ll get entangled. Socrates became entangled in dialectics, became unpopular, was accused of corrupting the youth, and was eventually sentenced to death.
Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow cautioned against over-examining your life:
Again, Robert Besch, from FLIGHT RISK:
Socrates may have written that the unexamined life is not worth living, but apparently the great philosopher didn’t consider his statement’s potential consequent: The examined life could be unbearable to live. That was Robert’s fear: that he might uncover a fundamental, uncorrectable flaw in himself he’d managed to hide his entire life. To dive deep into his neural circuits and attempt to make sense of his dissociative fugue was an act of self-torture, because if you gaze at your navel intensely and long enough, you may not find the insight you’re looking for but you’ll unearth the hidden lint and crud: the shortcomings, the lapses, the casual cruelty, the misguided motivations, the shallow needs and humiliating weaknesses. He sure as hell didn’t want to drag himself, or Sasha, through the muck of that discovery process.
I’m a bit of a self-reflector. I’m constantly examining my existence, my motives, my raison d’detre. I can’t say it makes me any happier, but unlike Bellow, it doesn’t make me wish I were dead. I believe it makes my life more interesting—at least to myself, if not others. What about you? Examined or unexamined life?