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The Unexamined Life

1.  Sorrows, Joys, and Bullshit

First of all, there are the wounds, the traumas, and the irrecoverable losses.  There are the children taken by the agents of government, the innocence taken by the hands of men, and the physical mobility taken by the front bumper and rear left tire of a careless driver.  These wounds are the great sorrows.  They are the ones that leave empty spaces on our insides and our outsides, where parts of our selves used to be but no longer are.  Or, as is so often the case with deaths and dyings (for Death is not so much The End as our constant companion on the way there), they leave spaces inside of us filled with the presence of a person who is no longer with us bodily.  Every day, you are present with me, but as an absence.  Every day, I remember what I used to be able to believe, but believe no longer. Every day.

Second, there are the great joys.  The moments of beauty that leave us breathless — waves smashing on rocks that send spray thirty feet into the air, the embrace of a lover, deer that come from the woods by the river and walk and stand and stare as though they are unafraid, and trees that remember and still sing of what there was to see before we were here.  These joys are a balm upon our wounds.  They are comfort in the midst of our sorrows.  They are moments when we can rest or revel in these bodies that we are and that are, no matter how marked, still so very much alive.

First the great sorrows, then the great joys.  Things go in that order.  When we are hurt we awaken to the world as a place into which we have been thrown — a place that is foreign and alien and Other.  Consciousness — of the kind that arrived all those years ago when a man and woman ate from a tree called the knowledge of good and evil — begins here.  But it doesn’t stop there because, when we are loved, we learn that we can also call this world good.  So first the great sorrows and then the great joys.

But there is more — there is that which came before the sorrow and the joy, before the grief and the comfort, before the car accident and the wheelchair.  Before all of this, there is the Wonder.

But we forget this.  We do not even focus upon the great sorrow and joys.  Mostly, we forget them, too.  As much as they can be forgotten.  For this is a forgetting that is a pressing down, a downpression, a repression, and it does not lie still–it manifests.  But if we do not focus on these things, what do we focus upon?  Bill payments and bank statements, whether or not getting our kids into their snowsuits will make us a few minutes late for work.  The fact that the bathroom hasn’t been cleaned for a week and laundry is overflowing in the dirty clothes basket and the cost of gas just went up again and somebody talked over me at lunch again and does anybody actually care what I have to say and I still haven’t started that project my boss assigned to me and I really should eat less carbs and maybe the kids aren’t spending enough time reading and are they going to fall asleep on time tonight so they aren’t so tired at school tomorrow and I should probably talk to my parents more often and is there something wrong with me and I should spend less time online and start meditating or join a book club and mostly I need to find a way to not be so tired all the time so I can get more of this stuff done… and on and on it goes.

This is what I want on my grave:


Because, if we look at what fills our days, what fills our minds, and what absorbs the bulk of our energies, it appears to be these things.  We almost all seem to express a desire for a meaningful life, a worthwhile life, and yet we almost all seem to focus our living upon things that really don’t matter.  At all.  Great sorrows and great joys (and the Wonder — more on that later) and what do we focus on? The bullshit.

2.  The Fragility of Life

In part, what this highlights is how fragile we all are.  I have been thinking a lot about this theme lately.  We flee from the great sorrows and either distrust or demand too much from the great joys.  Consequently, we plunge up to our eyes in the little sorrows, little joys, and ubiquitous stresses, worries, duties, aanxieties and trivialities and what do we find?  Even these things feel like too much for us.  Granted, they are generally not enough to completely overwhelm us — we all find ways to keep on keeping on, hold onto our jobs and pay at least minimum payments on our credit cards and student loans — but they are still too much.  My god, we are a fragile lot.

I have been thinking about how very deeply hurt people get by things that, in a different context, wouldn’t even register as hurtful.  I witness this all the time in the people who come to hang out where I work, Which, I suppose makes more sense when we remember that folks who are more predisposed to engage in what we call “addictive behaviours” are likely people who are more sensitive than others.  In other words, often the street-involved substance user is not a person who has loved less than others but a person who has loved more deeply than others — and the lack of sensitivity in the rest of us is revealed by the observation that instead of recognizing this and responding accordingly, we (the less sensitive ones) blame them (the more sensitive ones) and call them selfish or egocentric.

So what’s up with those of us who are less sensitive?  Because I’ve also been paying attention to this fragility in myself lately.  For example, the other week, the gal whom I love (and the gal who loves me) and I got in a tiff about something and both of us felt very hurt and didn’t quite know where we were going to go in terms of next steps and resolution… and now here I am a week later and it took me about five minutes to remember what it was that even set things off in the first place.  Turns out I’m as fragile as everyone else.

I think part of the reason for this is that we don’t focus upon our great sorrows and great joys.  When we forget or repress them, they don’t go away.  My arm is not any less broken if I pretend that it is not broken and find ways to hold it that allow me to forget the break.  The same applies to my heart.  But just like a broken arm needs to only be nudged with the tiniest amount of pressure to experience pain, so it also goes with broken hearts.  Or, even if the nudge does not produce pain, we know that it might and so we protect all our broken parts.  And we lash out at anybody who triggers that pain or seems to come close to it.

If you do not deal with the pain in yourself — if you cannot face it — don’t be surprised if you end up causing others pain.  Pain is contagious.  But laughter is, too.  And if we want to start moving from more pain to more laughter, we have to confront the parts inside of our selves that we feel we cannot bear to consider.

3.  The Unexamined Life, Obvious Nonsense, and Wonder

This, at least, is the counsel we receive from those who, in one way or another, urge us to truly examine our lives.  “Know thyself,” said the Oracle at Delphi, and Kant says much the same when he urges us to dare to think.  Not much has changed in this regard over the centuries.  We still pursue the examined life.

According to Plato, when Socrates was on trial for being impious and corrupting young people, Socrates stated that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  Perhaps what I have written so far makes you think I agree with this?  I want to be clear that I do not.  Because I’m not looking to simply go back to the great sorrows and the great joys, I want to return to Wonder.  The examined life, the one Plato’s Socrates says is the only kind of life worth living, is a way of cutting through the bullshit.  It is a way of not getting lost in the trivialities or caught up in the mundane anxieties of day-to-day life, in order to focus on what really matters in order to prioritize the great sorrows and joys (and master signifiers) and live a life that is worth living.

But Socrates is being somewhat dishonest when he approaches things this way.  Because the unexamined life is not so never so unexamined as it appears to be — especially to the intellectual elite who want to look down upon the hoi polloi for their thoughlessness.  Our lives are always being examined.  We are always living before and within the gaze of the Other, the Father, the State, and the Spectacle.  Furthermore, to be examined in this way is to be put to the test — it is an examination, an exam, and we are judged by what is found or found lacking.  Consequently, Socrates’ dichotomy is not so much between an unexamined life and an examined life but is a question of a power struggle as to what gaze controls how we perceive ourselves (and, hence, what gaze determines our performance and our feelings and our conclusion regarding the worth granted to our lives).  Socrates wants to seize control by becoming both the examiner and the examined instead of simply being the examined for other examiners.

It turns out that the unexamined life is not so easy to find.  However, it is precisely the unexamined life that I desire and, over against Socrates, I want to suggest that the “life worth living” is not actually worth living at all.  Life lived as an exam — even an exam that we pass with top grades — is not what I desire.  Who wants a life that can be judged?

But am I not examining life in order to argue for an unexamined life?  Yes.  Does this make sense?  Yes, if we understand that this how we begin a process but not how we continue it.  Wittgenstein is helpful here (as both quoted and paraphrased in David Stern’s commentary on the Philosophical Investigations):

In order to ‘turn something that isn’t obviously nonsense’… ‘into obvious nonsense’… we must first try to make sense of it, and in so doing, come to see that we cannot.

In other words, it is only by attempting to examine our lives that many of us are enabled to see that our lives are unexaminable.  All of this examination, all of this sense-making and engaging in power plays through language games is, to borrow another analogy from Wittgenstein, a ladder which we climb in order to kick away once we arrive at the top.  We examine only so long as it takes us to realize that we are in the domain of the unexaminable.  We have been taught to believe in sense-making.  But only when we really try to engage in sense-making ourselves, do we realize that this is all nonsense (to blend Heidegger with Camus one might refer to this as Nonsensein?).

And now we finally arrive back at the Wonder.  We arrive at the smile and outstretched hands of a child experiencing rain for the first time.

Note how this is different than an exam.  The wonder is experienced and, in being experienced it is known — but not known like a proposition but known in way in which two people are said to “know” each other in the moment that sex happens (“And Adam knew his wife Eve; and she conceived…”).  This is apocalyptic knowledge – the in-breaking of something new, something impossible now possible, something unimaginable now touchable – not the kind of knowledge that comes from study or examination.  It’s the difference between an anatomy test and laying naked next to the body of your lover, trailing your fingers over every line and curve and hollow, while your lover does the same with you.  It’s the kind of knowledge held in your fingertips, not the kind of knowledge held in words and ideas within your mind.  The latter kind of knowledge closes us off to Wonder.  It knows and, in knowing, it passes over and forgets all that it is unknowable.  Which is mostly everything.  But, mostly, knowledge is okay with that because knowledge is actually all about Power (don’t believe me, ask Foucault).  Knowledge desires to control and to bend things to its will.  So long as it can to that, it doesn’t care what it forgets.

The relation of knowledge to Wonder isn’t simply that we lose the forest for the trees, it is much more than that.  It is being unable to see a single tree as soon as it is called a tree (or, rather, a standing-reserve of lumber).  Because, to be perfectly honest, I really have no idea what this is:


And I’m okay with that.  I don’t know to know what that is in order to speak with it, or listen to it, or be with it. Because Wonder, in contrast to knowledge, is marked by openness.  An openness to the unknown as unknown.  An openness to an experience that is indescribable.  It is this openness, not courage or bravery, that is the opposite of fear.  To be courageous is to feel fear but to refuse to allow fear to determine the course of action one takes.  Courage is a response to fear and is still determined by fear.  The openness of wonder is different.  It is fearless (watch that girl in the rain again).  No wonder, then, that the world produced by the scientific revolution and the explosion in knowledge, gives us the security State, social media, and the NSA.  If we see everything and hear everything and record everything and track everything and know everything we will not stop being afraid.  Instead, you simply gain the knowledge/power to annihilate Life as we know it.  Open yourself to wonder, however, and you may discover that you forget to be afraid.  You may also discover that you’ve never felt so alive.

And if this sounds like nonsense to you, we’re on the right track.


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