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. 


  1. wow.......

    provocative Father.

    especially as I read this at 4:30 am on election day.

    a while back I learned i can't examine my life looking forward. I can only connect the dots looking backwards and thus is the value of being 60 years old now. I see with clarity that even though I may not have chosen to walk with the Holy Spirit,he always walked with me.

    and how grateful I am for each day, which allows me a greater perspective of my life, good and bad, and how I arrived where I am at.

    I am grateful for being allowed to age.

  2. "A conversation should reveal the self. It seldom does. " I think a symptom of our busy-ness in today's world. Time. It takes time to reveal oneself to another, and it takes time to stop and listen to others, to give them the space and trust to reveal themselves. We pass each other in the hallway at work, in the bank, at the grocery store, say hello, yes, we are fine, and continue on with our task at hand. I know that I need to be intentional on stopping, putting my focus on the other person, and revealing more of myself to them as well, beyond, "I'm doing well." My own "schedule" should not have priority over the PERSON in front of me, over the TIME to spend with that person. For me, this provides opportunity for going deeper, for myself, for others. Classic Mary and Martha choices.

  3. Thank you for writing this. The handful of conversations that I remember, truly enjoyed, and carry with me to this day have been philosophical in nature;substantial. Introspection and self examination is certainly necessary in order to improve and grow- and yet i wonder how much introspection is truly healthy in our relationship with God? I have been praying to the Holy Spirit as of late, and reading about the workings of the spirit in the New Testament, and it seems to me that I need to get out of the way. shifting my focus upward and outward has often brought to the surface ways in which I can improve myself without the self pity, depression annoyance and anger that can come with too much self critique. John 3:30 says "He must increase and I must decrease" I have been praying about this scripture and trying to figure out how to actually "decrease" so that the Holy Spirit can work uninhibited in me. This has all brought to light new meaning for me as the body of Christ. We are His hands, and getting ourselves out of the way seems to be the way in which the Spirit works best. So, coming back around, what is healthy introspection and how does one decrease oneself so as to increase the workings of the Spirit within?

    Thank you again for writing. It's good stuff. Keep at it.

  4. This is one of the best explanation I have ever heard - 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. Beautiful post as always Father.

  5. Very good. I mostly write in poetic form, whether song or poem. One of my favorite poets illuminates the saying "Brevity is the soul of wit".. as he writes his thoughts then goes back, time and again to whittle away the fat until there is nothing left but muscle… or like sculpting, you start with a thing and remove anything that is unnecessary so that all that is left is the best… I think most people who write do not remove enough when they proof read, and/or they throw away rather than whittle and work at refining what they have written.. maybe if you didn't have the distraction of a cell phone or radio or TV, it would help to better hear your muse?

  6. I will add my two cents, and say that you appear to have been roving the dark corners of my own mind in recent months, Father -- but I am writing (somewhat, at least) again, getting rid of stuff, and dragging myself back into the light. It feels better. Hope to connect soon.


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