The Wonder Report: September 9, 2022
The Examined Life
As I’m writing, it’s Labor Day Weekend here in the US, and for my husband and me, it’s also the start of a week of vacation, when we’ll finally get to see our youngest son after a summer apart. That means the past several days have been filled with anticipation. In many ways, those are the best kinds of day, when each completed task becomes a marker—one step closer to the goal.
Anticipation holds high value in my personal ethos. I like to plan and look forward to things ahead. It’s also a spiritual practice Jesus taught his disciples — in the Lord’s pray (“Thy kingdom come”) and in the sacrament of the eucharist (“I shall not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”).
But anticipation also is something Jesus warned against, especially when anticipation turns to worry — “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:34) — or pride, as in James 4:13-17.
One way I set boundaries over my anticipation is through the regular habit of examining my life, which helps root me in present realities, and reckon with both the good and bad of now. The examined life leads me to make observations and connections; it helps me see where God is at work in and around me; it heightens my own self-awareness. But there are pitfalls and dangers with the examined life, too, especially in our digital world.
So this is what we’ll talk about this week: the examined life. Let’s get started!
For someone who’s never been accused of being athletic, I’ve had a surprising number of sports-related injuries this summer. Actually, now that I think about it, injuries are probably pretty common when a non-athletic person decides to play sports. But I digress.
The first injury happened during an evening of pickleball and cornhole with two of our sons. The games themselves can be mild enough … people of all ages play and enjoy both without injuring themselves. But in a competitive streak, I played hard and ended up with terrible knee pain. I limped around for a week or so, had a day where I felt better, then developed a painful cramp in my calf. Eventually, I went to the doctor.
The second injury happened less obviously. I had a slight pain in my foot while jogging one day, then the next day I felt the same pain when I walked a little farther than usual for work. After a few more days, all walking and standing was painful, and my foot was swollen and red at the end of each day. Eventually, I went to the doctor for that injury, too.
In both cases, the doctors ordered lab tests: an ultrasound of my leg and an Xray of my foot. In both cases, the findings on those tests were inconclusive. But that wasn’t the end of it. Instead, when each doctor did an examination— observing the swelling and bruising, touching the injured areas with their hands, asking me for a precise history of when the pain started and how it progressed—they were able to come up with a diagnosis and a treatment plan.
Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” referring to his method of interrogating his own beliefs, where questions lead to wisdom. Socrates supposedly uttered this phrase during a trial in which he was accused and found guilty of leading astray the youth who followed him though his “Socratic method.” In his own self-defense, he claimed that he would rather die guilty than give up his life of philosophical inquiry.
The Apostle Paul also talked a lot about the examined life throughout his letters to the early church. In Paul’s case, the examined life was less philosophical and more spiritual. In the Kingdom of God, the examined life helps us reflect on God’s work in us and in the world. Here are a few instances where Paul encouraged others to examine themselves:
In 1 Corinthians 11:28, he says, “But a person must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”
In 2 Corinthians 13:5, he tells his readers to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”
In Galatians 6:4, he writes, “But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting, but to himself alone, and not to another.”
1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, he invites us to “examine everything” so that we can “hold firmly to that which is good, abstain from every form of evil.”
I am a person with an examined life. I regularly question myself, my beliefs, and my motives. I look for connections and interpret meaning out of what I see. I read widely and compare my own theological and philosophical beliefs against what I read, making adjustments when necessary. I’m always learning something new about how I exist in the world and where God is present. But what I’ve learned during the past couple of months—when I took an extended break from the personal writing that I do here and in other places—is that most of my self-examination is for the purpose of having something to write about, not necessarily to grow in self awareness so that I can love and serve God better. And when I’m not writing, I’m not all that good at examining myself either.
I don’t think writers alone are guilting of leading an examined life with the specific purpose of producing content. Social media has made content creators out of most of us. With the camera focused intently back on ourselves and with a platform inviting us to share our inmost thoughts, we have the appearance of heightened self-awareness, but the reality of self-centered performance. To paraphrase Socrates, the examined life that leads only to more reach or followers is not worth living.
The examined life that truly is worth living looks less like a mirror and more like a window. It’s less about the seemingly deep but one-dimensional x-ray, and more about the hands on evaluation informed by years of practice. The examined life may result in revelations worthy of an essay or newsletter, but it’s more suited for a personal journal, a private conversation, or a whispered prayer.
I wonder … do you live an examined life? How does it add to your personal satisfaction? How does it help you grow spiritually? Do you struggle to keep your examined life private rather than performative? Besides social media, what other areas tempt us to jump too quickly to share our self revelations?
Tools for the Examined Life
There are many ways to examine oneself. The daily examen is an ancient practice of prayerful self-reflection that can help you look with both gratitude and repentance over your day. This outline from Intervarsity will help you use the practice as part of your spiritual journey.
Other frameworks of questioning can work just as well, even ones that may not appear as “spiritual.” For instance, the nature journaling expert John Muir Laws offers three prompts for people when they want to record their experiences in nature. I think these would work just as well when prayerfully examining of lives:
“I notice …
“I wonder …
“It reminds me of …”
I also found another three-fold outline from Atlantic columnist Arthur Brooks, the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School. In “The Meaning of Life Is Surprisingly Simple,” he makes the case that people who know their life’s meaning “enjoy greater well-being than those who don’t.” Citing psychologists Frank Martela and Michael F. Steger from The Journal of Positive Psychology, he offers these three ways of thinking about our lives:
Where do I see coherence? or “how events fit together.”
What is my purpose? or “the existence of goals and aims.”
What is my significance? or “life’s inherent value.”
Whatever questions or prompts we use, when we commit our self-inquiry to the Lord, inviting him to make us grateful for all He’s given us, repentant for every sin, and open to his continued leading, the examined life becomes a Kingdom life, a life that fully and eternally worth living.
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. Thanks again for joining me. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together.
As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. I can’t always respond quickly, but I always respond.
Until next time,