Monday, November 7, 2016
The Unexamined Life
The AIDS epidemic of the 1990s inspired the musical Rent from which the world came to learn that there are 525,600 minutes in a year, which are apparently measured in midnights, in sunsets, in daybreaks, in cups of coffee, and other such jolly tripe. My experience suggests that 525,600 minutes are measured in miles driven, tanks of gas purchased, diet cokes consumed, meetings planned, meetings cancelled due to poor attendance, television shows on Netflix, and disappointments. A blog is interesting to read and interesting to write so long as there is something sufficient to merit the effort. I'm not sure when things became uninteresting, or if they did, but I find it hard to write anything of depth these days. My muse has either died of neglect, or, like a cat that one stops feeding, has gone to find sustenance at some other person's house. How did I arrive here?
Chapter 1: In Which The Intrepid Author Waxes Dark and Philosophical
"The unexamined life," Socrates insists, "is not worth living." Of course, for him, the examined life led to death anyway, so perhaps the examined life isn't so great either. In either case, it seems inescapable that life is dull when one walks through it never asking, "Why do I do what I do, believe what I believe, and choose what I choose? Why am I here?" Boredom is the fruit of an unexamined life, because one fails to discover what one truly wants and thus seeks meaning and pleasure in things that ultimately dissatisfy. Of course, for many, living the examined life leads to angst and nihilism, which is like boredom, except with more self-mutilation. But at least people living the examined life are interesting. They break up the humdrum, mundane, all too regular existence of those who live the unexamined life. Mine, I fear, has become an unexamined life.
Minor seminary, of course, required self-examination. In all charity, I've never met a group of more self-absorbed naval-gazers than seminarians. It is their job. They are asked to question their motives for coming to the seminary, what God wants of them, and how they know he wants it. This interior investigation takes tremendous psychic, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional effort. Every little flaw, real or perceived, could become a formation issue - something that would ultimately prevent ordination. It is the work of major seminary to draw a man to the point where such introspection becomes an external offering of self to Christ and his bride, the Church, through the priesthood. For many men, at least those who never advance to ordination, it comes as a shock to discover that most other lifestyles neither encourage nor tolerate introspection to this degree. I recollect bemusedly listening to a former seminarian relate that one of his friends (also a former seminarian), had needed to explain to him that after leaving the seminary, one no longer experiences "formation issues".
The first few years of priesthood likewise lent themselves to examination. First, there was still an element of formation that occurred so long as I was under the watchful eye of the pastor. His critiques required me to look carefully at myself. Second, almost everything was new, shiny, and endowed with infinite significance. Every act of ministry placed me one step closer to my final goal of having saved the world. I was changing lives. I did not yet believe that if people change, they do so only slowly, and sometimes not for the better. Before becoming convinced of this idea, I wanted to record each moment as a monument to my success.
The process of saving the world leaves one feeling very much as though he is needed. It feels good to be needed. Codependency, it has been suggested to me, is dysfunctional. I suspect that it is, but it is often rewarded in Church work. The more one is needed, the more industrious he becomes, and thus all the more needed. Industry takes time and energy. It leaves little room for examining one's life. One relies on assumptions, previous experience, platitudes, and a handful of really good homilies from the last time these readings came around. It is astonishing how long one can get away with employing only these tools. These tools, however, are rather expensive. They come at the cost of disappointment and self-doubt. The one who uses them feels cheap, a cheater, a fraud. There is, however, a ready remedy for disillusionment; one just needs to become more needed. And to become more industrious. And to examine one's life even less. And to become even more disappointed. As surely as carbon becomes diamond under pressure, disappointment becomes blaming, blaming becomes resentment, resentment becomes anger, and anger becomes apathy. Apathy is the opposite of love; apathy is a killer of muses.
Chapter 2: In Which The Intrepid Author Explores Other Causes For His Authorial Malaise
I like writing. I like playing with words. I like nitpicking over whether this or that sentence is just right. I like deleting whole paragraphs and starting over. I like beginning a piece with one idea in mind and discovering by the end that I have said something else. Six hundred word articles in a small town paper, monthly columns for the parish bulletin, the occasional snarky email, and infrequent blog posts inspired by debilitated, pale muses, however, leave me longing for something more. I am a fan of the short story. So often they have grabbed me by the soul and shaken me. I want to write a story. I grow weary of essays, exhortations, and expositions. I want, by means of brief narrative, to crystallize the human experience with wisdom, wit, sincerity and singularity. I want to write a story like Hemingway, or O'Connor, or Bradbury. But what I write seems insipid, cliche, and immature. My style is wrong for the genre; the vocabulary is vapid, the arc of the story too brief, and the moral too obvious. The written word is never so unruly as when I try to write a story. So I haven't tried for a while. The blog and my own self-examination suffer as a result.
Chapter 3: In Which The Intrepid Author Complains About His Stuff
I have too much stuff. Too many books. Too many devices. Too many fishing magazines. Too much mail. Too many clothes. Too much comfort. Too much time during which no one demands anything of me. (It is a paradox, not hypocrisy, that I can complain in a single post of having both too much and too little time. The experience merits a post of its own.) Distractions of one's own choosing are hell on introspection. Distractions - stuff - seem mostly to lend themselves to silent speculation and frustration about why they are ultimately so dissatisfying, and what other distraction might be more satisfying. Stuff is not helpful to writing.
Chapter 4: In Which The Intrepid Author Bemoans The Absence of Other Philosophy Majors
Very few people talk about ideas. They talk about people. They talk about events. They do not talk about beauty, truth, goodness, or happiness. If they talk about themselves, it is only in the most superficial of terms. Conversations dare no vulnerability, push no boundaries, never risk that one party or the other might be wrong, and resultantly incite no intimacy. A conversation should reveal the self. It seldom does. Most conversations cannot even initiate the process of basic self-revelation because the person speaking has never asked who or what he is. Talk of the weather, the kids, sports, politics, news, cows, crops, work, school, hook-ups, break-ups, vacations, medications, plans for Thanksgiving, plans for Christmas, plans for summer, who is pregnant, and who recently died can all pass the time. They do little by way of eliciting truth, goodness, and beauty. They do little to draw the mind and heart to God. They do little to inspire self-examination. Sometimes I ache for these conversations.
Chapter 5: In Which The Intrepid Author Recognizes Glimmers of Hope
And here I sit writing. I have not written, nor really even thought, so honestly for a long time. It all started as I refereed a dispute between two college boys, one a convicted Catholic, the other a resentful Catholic who calls himself an atheist. Their their argument descended (ascended?) into a lengthy conversation about the nature of beauty and whether or not life is objectively meaningful. At the end, I thought, "I need to read. And I need to write." Writing leads to self-examination. And, since I am trying to quit smoking (I've been tobacco free for seven days today), I need to do something to distract my fidgety hands, and craving-addled mind. So, herein I offer an examination. I doubt it has the enduring value of Plato's Apology. It will not shatter the history of Western Thought as did Descartes and his Meditations. But, it is something. Something is better than nothing. And even a shallowly examined life must be more worth living than a life altogether unexamined.