The Examined Life

Courtney - Boulder, Colorado
Entered on January 21, 2009

I believe in right answers.

I’ve always needed to be right. When a personality test told me my motto was “The world would be a much better place if people would just do what I told them,” I saw no irony. Knowing I’m right is as natural to me as knowing to breathe. A philosophy teacher taught me Socrates’ famous line, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and I truly believed that enough examination would help me learn all the right answers – which must, after all, be the point of existing.

Upon graduation from a college that encouraged engagement with Socrates’ all-important self-examination, I asked all sorts of questions: how would I live alone for the first time? How would I inspire adolescents to see the beauty and truth in the literature that I loved? How would I handle all of the changes in store for me? Though I was anxious, earning a diploma was like earning the promise of answers to my future. Somehow, I told myself, I’d find the right answers – I always had.

Three weeks after I graduated from college, when I should have been lounging on the beach and preparing for life as an adult, I was lying on an operating table, waiting to have surgery for ovarian cancer, wondering if I would ever even reach adulthood at all.

Though I could tell you many details about the surgery itself, the time leading up to my hospital stay was more significant than the life-saving operation I endured. For several agonizing weeks, doctors looked inside me to find evidence of my disease while I searched inside myself for answers. I looked back through photos and mementos, trying desperately to find some reason for my diagnosis. I scoured the internet, typing my symptoms into search engines, hoping to find a cure for my condition or, even better, that what I had wasn’t serious at all. Finally, not knowing where else to turn, I began to devour stacks of novels, my well-loved and time-tested technique of comfort. The world of fiction served as my escape from the frightening questions that loomed over me, unanswered.

In some ways, I eventually did find an answer to my desperate questions that summer – I survived. But in other ways, a question still haunts me. Unlike cancers that can be considered “cured” after five years in remission, mine can mysteriously return ten, twenty, or thirty years later – I will never truly feel that I’ve beaten it. But despite that unanswered question, and perhaps because of it, I learned an important lesson that summer: I didn’t get cancer for any Reason or Purpose – there isn’t an answer for why I got sick. I realized – as I started that “new chapter of my life,” when I see the scar from my operation, and when I beg my students to be brave enough to ask difficult questions rather than to see literature as an escape as I once did – that when Socrates told us to examine our lives, he didn’t want us to find easy answers to the big dilemmas we’d face. I still believe in being right, but that the life worth living is one in which you have examined your life to know the right questions even when you can’t find the answers.