An Examined Life

March 25th, 2013

unexamined lifeThere’s a billboard on the way into town advertising a tanning salon. There’s a bright orange girl on it, almost radioactive looking, and the caption, “I tan so that I can feel good all year round.”

Having grown up on the sun drenched beaches of Eastern Australia, completely oblivious to the dangers of skin cancer, I appreciate a good tan. But I also know how fleeting a tan is, how elusive the perfect tan is, and how your skin can only tan so much before it wrinkles like a piece of old leather.

Truth is, I suspect the orange girl on the billboard tans because she’s bought into a culture where self esteem is based on popularity, which is based on how attractive you are, which is built around a very narrow and superficial beauty myth. We tan for the same reason we self medicate and self mutilate; self loathing. We tan because we DON’T feel good all year round. Because life feels so out of control, we tan to give ourselves the illusion of control. After all, it’s a powerful feeling to change the color of your skin, and turn heads.

I see a lot of orange girls these days, and I can relate. I don’t go to the gym for the pure goodness of being healthy. My ego gets a solid work out too. A definite part of my identity is based on the superficial male beauty myth and now that I’m in my 40s, and life is busy, this illusion is getting harder to sustain too.

We ALL do it in our own ways. There’s no need for self judgment. That’s the problem in the first place. There IS a need for self examination, a little more mindfulness about motivation.

The great Greek philosopher, Socrates, said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

Note that he didn’t say “It’s better to examine your life” or “when you get a minute, do a little examination.” He said it’s not even worth living if you don’t examine your life. It’s a strong statement. And the type of examination he’s talking about is brutally honest. The word “examine” has military origins. It speaks of discipline and rigor.

There are so many personal and social issues that could do with some examination. An examined life is personal mindfulness and social awareness.

I read that in North Carolina it’s now a felony to expose a nipple in public. The feeling that a woman’s body is shameful is part of the same beauty myth. Women are expected to find the impossible balance between satisfying male fantasies while not stimulating male fantasies. This is happening in a state where one in four kids live in poverty.  I think some law makers in North Carolina might want to examine their priorities.

We should examine ALL the systems, as well as our own roles in perpetuating them.

The incredible and shocking reality is that we have brains that are capable of solving intricate problems like poverty. We have the power of choice but rarely choose to use it for good. We have the collective capacity and resources to solve all the great problems in the world but barely make any headway.

We need the courage and character of people like Socrates to truly examine the world and our place in it. Socrates made his famous statement about the unexamined life at his own heresy trial, as told by his famous student Plato. He was charged with subverting the state and corrupting young people because of his open ended, questioning methods. His practice was to walk up to random people in the street and ask them what they believed and why, a la Michael Moore.

Socrates was given the choice of his own punishment. He could either drink the hemlock and suffer an agonizing death or face exile. He drank the hemlock after making his declaration that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The guy had skin in the game. He knew the costs of an examined life. He wasn’t the only activist in history to drink the hemlock. There are many fine examples of people who suffered for their honesty.

The promise of an examined life is not happiness but honesty. Kurt Vonnegut said,

Plato says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?

Exactly! The examined life might turn out to be a clunker because it offers no guarantees of security. It offers only the satisfaction of integrity. Integrity won’t give you a safe life, but the alternative is a cancer more fierce than skin cancer. It’s the cancer of deceit. It eats away at your soul. The integrity of an examined life is unsettling but SO satisfying and purposeful. Try it on for size.

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  1. jack harris says:

     Ian     Yesterday I listened to and today read your words. Heady stuff. Thank you and “encore”    jack.

  2. [...] It happens all the time. You see the world or yourself through someone else’s eyes and it opens up a whole new perspective. It’s an essential part of living a mindful, examined life. [...]

  3. Jack Grabon says:

    Another good one, Ian.  I was just thinking earlier today that our debt problem in the US (and elsewhere) isn’t actually a debt problem.  It’s a priority or distribution problem.  There’s plenty of money for weapons, launching things into space and other such nonsense.  Meanwhile, we’re cutting back in our schools, healthcare is expensive, people still starve to death, etc.  We could solve so many social issues – tomorrow!  Like the bigger question you ask: how are we perpetuating a system like this?  This is worth thinking about for everyone.  For instance, I sometimes wonder if donating money to organizations that help the less fortunate are also a way of maintaining the status quo…

  4. Jim Skinner says:

    Really got a lot out of this one Ian.  The William Wallace quote (my blood goes back to  his people) although referring to physical risk is the lesson we all need to learn.

  5. Petra Oldfield says:

    Hello Ian – opened a BIG chapter here – that shows the interconnectedness of our lives and world……so just to touch one tiny aspect…”a little more mindfulness about motivation.” To answer your and Jack’s question  of “ how are we perpetuating a system like this?”   The answer is in the “why’s”.   And my reflection on the world shows Fear  - a hungry monsterfear that we will not be “popular” so the hunger is for the material –  the debt for the car, the clothes, the bigger house, the holidays, the fake tan…  to still the feelings of insecurity, feed the poor self esteem the avarice, the anger, the hatred that all of the above brings – that someone else will take it if I don’t get there first – which brings about the selfishness, the hurriedness of life, the unwillingness to listen,and then someone feeds that fear on a grand scale and the xenophobia and wars start….And sadly our world is run by politicians who are people who are fearful (not scared – there is a big difference) and so the cycle continues I believe that change is important and that we should evolve but in our hurry we have lost what is important, what made man live and survive for millennia – in the cliche words – no man is an island.   There are many examples in the natural world of cruelty, “survival” of the fittest  but we need to go back to what makes us human – an no it is not just our ability to reflect – but to be compassionate.  Tying back to your other post – “what is growing” – being mindful of the impact of each of your actions is a start (although for those of us that are very mindful there is the danger of paralysis too  :)….)   

  6. John Aves says:

    Dear Ian:Melanie and I have moved to the Charlotte NC area and we found a minister we really like by the name of Steven Shoemaker.  The church reminded us of Foutain Street is many ways.  But Steve recently encountered some personal problems and resigned.  He  has been working on an interesting book about the historical Jesus which Melanie and I have offered to help him get published.  Finding as much as can be known about the true history of Jesus, separating the “made up stuff” from the most likely  factual truth, fasinates me.I thought that Steve might be interested in what you are doing, as well.  I would like to hear about you, where you are living and how your “virtual church” is progressing!!! Steve might benefit from learning about how you have used the digital age to carry your message. He might tie something in with his book, which is being done freaquently in the publishing industry.

  7. Marc says:

    It’s a very good post Ian!  It’s touch my heart. I’ll recomande that to all my followers on twitter.