The Unexamined Life

It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined is not worth living.”

I suppose it was my religious upbringing that instilled in me the importance of self reflection, even though that religious heritage had limited objectives by encouraging children, at an early age, to reflect, almost exclusively, on their sins.

The objective was to make sure that all children become aware of just how inclined to evil we all were, no matter how much it preached the pollyanic, but contradictory message that we were all made in the image and likeness of God.

Self-knowledge (the “unexamined life”), then, was more like self-flagellation than it was about any deep soul searching. A cathartic walk through our faults was seen, by the church, as the only way to heal our, essentially, sinful selves.

Nevertheless, I did learn something about interiority. I did learn that it was permissible, if not encouraged, to be silent with myself, to circle back into my psyche.

I have to admit, however, that I became hooked on the interior life throughout my adulthood. There was a part of me that believed that the things of the mind and the spirit were far more real than relationships, family, friends.

I am convinced all of that was jump-started by my childhood and adolescent belief that soul work had more substance than family. And it was safer, psychologically because it made me feel good. After all, in my young mind, I was becoming a better person, maybe even a “saint” (my daughter told me that the reason I wasn’t contacted by the Vatican about my potential for beatification is that I didn’t have a red phone).

That feel-good sense carried over into my belief that the Roman Catholic Church would be my real family, my spiritual utopia where I could bask in the world of the inner life, a positive world of psychological rewards.

It wasn’t until I had gone through seven years of counseling that I realized how much living I had missed in my relationships. I had to be gently brought into the worlds of grief, fear, joy, and real feelings I had for people whom, quite frankly, I didn’t really know whether I loved or not.

And, my long and deep journey in a twelve-step program also humanized my life. I met people who were as frightened about relationships as I was. I met others who struggled with coming to terms with their families. And I began to realize that those who had found joy in the program were very, very real. They weren’t faking it.

As a writer who is on a journey of sobriety, I know that I could have traveled on the simplest of paths by choosing to abstain from booze and leave it at that. But I chose to go deeper.

That deeper journey was a combination of thinking about my behavior, absorbing the lessons about living from a wide variety of teachers, and being among real people trying to survive by sharing our experiences, reciprocally.

Another way I get in touch with that depth is to write.

Sometimes I write about what I am learning about myself. Other times I write about what I have learned (I often don’t make those discoveries until I start writing, by the way).

At other times, I write poetry, a genre that enables me to create characters, incidents, an emotion, a sensibility, or a psychological truth.

Today, I chose to write about an issue that I had to work on as a sober, mature adult. In that process of putting my fingers to the keys and just starting, I began to re-discover how important my inner life was when I was growing up. I didn’t realize how that “unexamined” inner life had competed, for so long, with the real world of human relationships.

Today, I re-discovered how strong that battle was and how I have learned to combine the two worlds of self-reflection and relationships, and the feelings I experience from those relationships, in a healthy balance.


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