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Socrates made this comment at his trial for heresy. He was on trial for encouraging his students to challenge the accepted beliefs of the time and to think for themselves. His sentence was death and Socrates did have the option of suggesting an alternative punishment – he could have chosen life in prison or exile, and would likely have avoided death.
Socrates, however, believed that these alternatives would rob him of the only thing that made life useful – examining the world around him and discussing how to make the world a better place. Without his “examined life” there was no point in living. Thus, he suggested that Athens reward him for his service to society. The result, of course, is that they had no alternative – they voted for the death penalty.
At his trial in 399BC, Socrates declared that from his incessant questioning (to become the “Socratic Method”), he found his contemporaries “spend” their time and their lives pursuing various goals — money, ambition, possessions, pleasure, physical security – without asking themselves if these goals were important. Unless people posed such a question and seriously, consciously, sought the answer — through careful reflection, alert observation and critical arguments — they would not know if they were doing the right thing.
The truth is, most folks avoid leading an examined life. It’s not that they don’t have time or make time. They actively choose not to examine their lives. Curious.
People who do examine their lives, who consciously think about where they’ve been, how they got here, and where they’re going, are much happier people. No one has all the answers. And no one’s life is free from trouble, strife and challenges. But those who have some sense of where they belong in the universe also have a ground for understanding how all the elements of their life fit together.
If there are two people, one with a map and one without a map, who has the better chance of reaching their destination? The one with the map, of course.
When you set aside time to examine your life,
- you get to choose your destination;
- you get to choose and set your goals;
- you get to determine your path and direction;
- you get to decide how long it will take;
- you get to decide whether you’re on the right path or the wrong path.
In other words, you begin to know “thyself,” to take control of your life, to become the Master of your life. You decide who you want to be and begin to become the person you want to be.
Examining your life brings tremendous freedom. You can take control of your life. All you have to do is set aside some time every day (15 minutes, a half hour, an hour…) and commit to the practice.
The hardest thing about examining your life is getting started. You have to sit alone, be still, and be OK with doing nothing but focus and reflect.
Socrates 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 simply and clearly says it’s not even worth living – a powerful statement.
Why does he make such strong, unequivocal statement?
Socrates believed that the purpose of human life is personal and spiritual growth, that permeates all of our be-ings and do-ings – at work, at home, at play and in relationship. We are unable to grow toward greater understanding of our true and real self, our authentic self, 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 understanding of our subconscious programming, the powerful mental software that runs our life – our self-limiting beliefs, our assumptions, our “stories,” our misconceptions and misconceptions about life, the world and people in the world – our world – at work, at home, at play and in relationship Unless we become aware of these limiting, self-sabotaging, self-defeating patterns, habits, beliefs, self-images, “stories” and perspectives, much of our life remains rote, “unconscious,” just a series of sleepwalking, unconscious, habitual, repeating patterns.
As a coach, I experience many examples of the effect of an unexamined life. I remember Lori, 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 Chris, 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 Lori and Chris had taken the time to examine and reflect upon their lives as they were living them, they might have made changes and had a different experience during their lifetime.
The good news is that it’s never too late to start examining our life more thoroughly – and to reap the rewards. Lori 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 Chris to get a second chance with his wife, but he was able to build strong relationships with his children.
We all have blind spots. Sometimes when we examine a chronic problem in our life, we have that unsettling feeling that we must be missing something, but we can’t quite see what it is. We try to examine ourselves, but none of us can see our own “shadow” or our blind spots.
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 partner, a skilled coach, or counselor who supports us to reveal those blind spots we cannot see by ourselves.
Our society discourages self-awareness with a weekly cycle of working and consuming that keeps us too busy to slow down for self-reflection. Consumer capitalism’s game plan prefers an unaware, unconscious, and vaguely dissatisfied and subtly agitated population that tries to fill the void inside with shiny new products, or designer clothes or food, Reality TV shows, exercise, alcohol, sex or workaholism
It’s a radical act to stop and contemplate your life. But according to Socrates, it’s the only game that really matters. Are you up for playing?
Some questions for self-reflection:
- Can you name three six-month goals, three annual goals and three lifetime goals you are currently pursuing? If not, could you? Would you?
- Is your short-term life/work plan tonight and your long-term life/work plan next Friday? If this typifies your current lifestyle, what’s wrong with this picture? How so?
- Do you take time on a regular basis to reflect on where’re you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re heading in your life vis-a-vis your career, your relationship, your life at play, your personal and professional development? If you don’t reflect regularly, why not. (Tip: “no time” is an “excuse”, not a “reason”.)
- What value and worth to you derive from your life at work, at home, at play and from your relationship with your spouse/partner?
- How do you feel about examining your life? Curious, adventurous, excited….afraid, anxious, resistant, guilty? How so?
- What would it take for you to begin spending 15 minutes every day in quiet, in solitude, and explore your life?
(c) 2019, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful. Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.
What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is – maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”
I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.
I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, www.truenorthpartnering.com or pvajda(at)truenorthpartnering.com
You can also follow me on Twitter: @petergvajda.