Sunday, 22 September 2013

Living sane - Is the Unexamined Life Really Not Worth Living?

The unexamined life is not worth living.” This saying of Socrates (470-399 B.C.) has been around for quite a while and is quoted often. One modern author has produced a counter-statement for it. 

The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining?” 

This is how the psychoanalytic writer Adam Phillip begins his book Missing Out.

Examine, what does that really mean? Is it self-reflection, a vision quest or a sweat-lodge ceremony, or is it psychoanalysis conducted by another person using analytical tools of a commonly agreed upon methodology? Either way, such a process is a lengthy undertaking and usually one lifetime does not seem long enough. 

Within the modern Western approaches, Lacanian psychoanalysis (named after the French Freudian Jacques Lacan 1901-81) has a unique approach to the length of the analysis. Instead of the clock, what the patient says determines the length of the session from five minutes to ninety minutes.

The why of such rigorous analysis, self or the lying on the couch kind, needs a fairly strong justification.

What do I get if I examine my life? Psychology, or any approach for that matter, cannot guarantee a certain pre-determined outcome for a process of self-discovery, which is never easy. Whoever gives guarantees such as “Get to know yourself, and you will be happy” or “Know yourself and all your dreams will come true” better be prepared for being sued heavily.

In physical illnesses, ‘cure’ is generally understood as the (almost) complete eradication of symptoms, pain, suffering, restrictions and inconvenience associated with the condition. In the cases of the psyche, usually cure aims to place or restore the human being to a state that s/he can function and be beneficially involved in society without serious hindrance and thus live and enjoy a satisfactory life.

How Does One Examine One’s Life?

The social-psychology theory of self-verification claims that people want to be known and understood by others in the same way as they feel and believe about themselves. 

Self-concept (answer to Who am I?) and self-esteem (Own beliefs e.g., I am worthy or I am competent) are part of this self-view.

A Google search of the terms “Methods of self-examination” gives more than 13 million hits. The majority of them are about breast cancer and how to examine the breasts to detect cancer. Here also self-examination has to be related to the opinions and experience of other people. 

This reveals a pattern of self-examination: it is always in relation to other people and can never be a stand-alone act.

Whether we choose to consult the I-Ching oracle, read tealeaves or Tarot cards or use modern psychoanalysis, we can never escape constantly reflecting our actions, experiences, emotions, views and beliefs with those of others. 

L’enfer, c’est les autres (Hell is other people), the most misinterpreted quote by the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) describes the ceaseless ontological struggle as one is forced to see oneself as an object within the world of another consciousness.

How to Live an Unexamined Life
  •  “I don’t have time for such idle thoughts”
  • “What’s the use of thinking what I could’ve become!”
  • "Can't you see I'm making a living for my family!"

These are some typical sentiments busy and often not so busy people give as reasons why they shouldn’t examine their lives.  

Yesterday at our local grocery shop, a Muslim lady wearing a veil, possibly from Somalia, was shopping. She was not accustomed to walking (at least not inside a convenience store with narrow corridors) and moving around was slow and cumbersome. At the checkout, she had problems opening her Louis Vuitton handbag to pay for her purchases. Then her phone rang out loud. She stopped paying for her purchases and produced her state-of-the-art smartphone and began fumbling with it. This took a while and resulted in people in the queue fidgeting nervously but not shouting as no one in Finland wants to be caught "harassing" minorities and being called a racist

Now, from her unease, we could deduce that she was not used to shopping in a modern city store, which surely is different from her native environment and thus requires different skillsets. We do not know how much anxiety this caused the person, but surely quite a deal. But I wondered what was the motivation for acquiring a Louis Vuitton luxury bag, which she found to be cumbersome, and a state-of-the-art smartphone she couldn’t use (yes, we all use only a handful of their ample features and fumble sometimes). 

Was it self-examination that had prompted her, after arriving in a new country, probably as an asylum-seeker, to promptly acquire the luxury bag and the smartphone so that she would blend in or feel equal?

Marketing makes us believe that we need certain products in order to be acceptable. Is the ultimate motive of such self-examination of perceived status through acquired symbols essentially different from that of rigorous psychoanalysis? 

Buy this and you will be happy!” is the mantra used by all marketing while “Do this and you will be happy” is the mantra of analysis, shamanism or any other method of self-improvement. The disclaimer that you may become less happy than before is never uttered.

Spick and span, busy, ultra-efficient, prosperous and shining Singapore ranks rather high in the United Nations Human Development Index, above France, Finland and Liechtenstein yet paradoxically Singaporeans are rather unhappy. Singapore ranks first at 46% as the lowest positive emotions worldwide.

In Singapore, at 27% of all deaths, cancer is the number one killer. There is a lot of research to support the idea that repressed anger, hate and resentment are the root emotional causes leading to cancer. The US Adult Mental Illness Surveillance Report shocks by saying that 25% of Americans have mental illnesses while 50% are predicted to suffer from mental illnesses during their lifetime, according to US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Does it then mean that while pursuing their glamorous and affluent lives, Singaporeans do not examine their lives or live as they would like to and it makes them unhappy and then cancer kills them or that trying to live the American dream Americans are getting slightly mad?

The recipe for living an unexamined life is vast and endless. One doesn’t require very much imagination to get caught up in the game of being busy, sick, tired, angry, miserable, unloved, cheated, abused, deprived, victim of injustice or racism. The list of ways how life gives us an unfair hand is longer that all the rivers of the world combined.

If we really wanted to live life fully, we wouldn’t really have to do much. It’s not a shortage of information. We have all the information, instructions and teaching we ever need all around us. But we need to work with ourselves. Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the Persian mystic (1207-1273) provokes us.

"Do not be satisfied with the stories that come before you. Unfold your own myth."

No government, no parent, teacher, spouse, boss or guru can make us examine or live our lives if we do not want to. Only we can begin living our lives fully. 

It would be very healthy and useful to realise that examining and living our lives with authenticity are not mutually exclusive. Rumi puts it elegantly.

"Why should I stay at the bottom of a well, when a strong rope is in my hand?"

  • Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
ISBN: 978-0374281113  
224 pages
  • Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi quotes from