Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Overexamined Life

"On the way back,
we passed by
the stone walls again.
The stones had no mortar;
they were just stones
balancing against the sky."

- Simon Ortiz, "Toward Spider Springs"

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates once said.

But, we would add, the overexamined life isn’t worth living either. We like the thought expressed in the Ortiz poem quote above. Sometimes, it's good to just be the stones - to just be.

But for many people that won't be enough. They will seek out the mortar. And if it isn't there, they will invent one. In other words, they can't live a life without believing that something holds it together, shapes it, gives it meaning and purpose.

We have a friend who is very interested in defining himself through his chosen pursuits. He lays them out with great thought and vision, rationalizing and justifying choices he's made. He speaks often about personal performance and achievement, as if life was a kind of self-improvement plan.

We are not passing judgment. To each his own. If he finds contentment in this self-analysis, then so be it.

But we can't help but wonder about the wisdom of investing so much of a sense of self in external things, achievements or pursuits.

If you want freedom, or emancipation from societal or personal chains ... if you want equanimity - that sweet sense of "unattached awareness of one's experience as a result of perceiving the impermanence of momentary reality... a peace of mind and abiding calmness that cannot be shaken by any grade of both fortunate circumstance and unfortunate one" - as the Wikipedia puts it - then this would seem counterproductive to that idea.

The reason is because these external things will not abide your wishes. You cannot always be what you want to be. Life and circumstance force changes upon you. How you react to life's vicissitudes will determine whether you can maintain that sense of equanimity or not.

If you have important life goals, activities that you believe define who you are, then you are less likely to maintain that equanimity.

The words of Albert Camus come to mind. "To the extent to which he imagined a purpose to his life, he adapted himself to the demand of a purpose to be achieved and became the slave of his liberty...

To the extent to which I hope, to which I worry about a truth that might be individual to me, about a way of being or creating, to the extent to which I arrange my life and prove thereby that I accept its having a meaning, I create for myself barriers between which I confine my life."

He goes on to write:

"The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future."

All that is, is the here and now. At some point, we're all dead men. The absurd man draws strength from this insight. "Death," Camus writes, "has patrician hands which, while crushing, also liberate."

In conclusion, we prefer to let life happen. Whatever wish or goal we have, we hold to it lightly, like a little bird we coddle gently in the palms of our hands. If it should flutter away, our life will be no poorer for having lost it.


  1. I like this a lot. Arthur.

  2. I think life is feeling a good vibration is let it flow because in that way we can get the perfect freedom, and as the last paragraph says we prefer to let life happen I think that's the way it is I couldn't say it better.m10m

  3. Well said.

    I have recently been exposed to someone who spends a tremendous amount of energy in self examination, meditation, special diets, yoga, and sensitivity training, and yet he leaves dirty dishes in the sink and seems oblivious to the way his actions affect his housemates.

    So yours is my first essay in a little research project on the "overexamined life."