I’ve always believed in the value of self-examination, of being suspicious of my own motives for acting or believing. When I read Plato’s Apology for the first time in college, I felt vindicated by Socrates’s announcement of his own personal philosophy: that the unexamined life is not worth living.
When I was in graduate school studying philosophy, I understood this directive as being fundamentally about beliefs. I thought my most important responsibility was to understand what I believed and why. All of it was open to examination: my atheism, my left-leaning political convictions, my moral skepticism. And when I met my husband, a Republican and a Catholic, I got to apply my Socratic examination to him as well. He let me ask what every bit of Catholic doctrine meant and how he could possibly believe it, and in return, he asked me to examine the dogma of my youth and confront the valid moral questions raised by abortion, suicide, and the like. He emerged a Democrat, and I – a convert to Catholicism.
Something happened to me recently that shifted the focus of my self-examination. I was telling my husband about an incident from earlier in the day: I had been at the playground with my children. I had just helped my one year old down the slide, and turned to find that my dog had clambered up to the platform. Seized by childish perversity, I pushed her down the slide. I heard screaming from the bottom of the slide almost instantly: the dog had fallen on the baby who had in turn fallen on the gravel.
After a short silence, my husband said: “what were you thinking?” Then I got so angry I couldn’t talk, and I left the room. I was angry long into the night. When I finally went to bed, at three in the morning, I woke him up. “I don’t tell you you’re a bad father, unfit to be left alone with the baby, whenever she gets hurt on your watch.” “I never said you were a bad mother, I never even thought it.” He answered, bewildered.
It took a lot of will-power that night for me to apply Socrates’s directive. I kept thinking, ‘well, if he didn’t tell me I was a bad mother, why do I feel so strongly like someone told me that?’ And then it came to me: it wasn’t my husband who’d said it, he’d just wondered what had possessed me to mistreat my beloved dog, it was some hateful voice inside me that had been repeating it, probably for years, but certainly since hurting the baby. Since that day, I’ve been noticing the pattern in myself: it’s hard to be both the implacable critic and the one being reviled; it’s easier to make someone else the critic so that I can fight back.
Unexamined beliefs, I think, are not worth having, they make life shallow. But unexamined emotions really can make life not worth living.