“An unexamined life is not worth living.” - Socrates
It was over 2,500 years ago that Socrates spoke those words. It is a call to action. Take a hard look at your life. It’s important not only to gain self-knowledge but it is also a way to find value in your existence. In essence, this quest for deep personal understanding and purpose is at the root of all religions – their beginnings and, subsequently, their popularity My interest is in the actual process of examining. I believe that Socrates is highlighting the place where true contentment lies – it is in the very act of searching for meaning.
By rigorously questioning your relationships, beliefs and profession I believe you can know your character. Buried in your character, you will find your purpose. What defines it and makes you believe it’s truly yours? You’ll know by identifying your main habits – these will have formed over the years because they made you feel content. In other words, you have taken up certain hobbies and projects because ultimately they make you feel good
Now some people will argue that they require definite answers - answers only a religious tradition can give them. These people find contentment through rituals and a belief in a higher being. I, for one, think this “belief” is more closely aligned to hope. I love, and endorse, the observation of author Willa Cather, “Religion is different from everything else; because in religion, seeking is finding” - Cather should have included Philosophy. Both religion and philosophy involve searching for answers… searching for reality. And, both attempt to bring people a high degree of personal contentment or peace.
My problem with the religious road to contentment is the need for the so-called “leap of faith”. At some point, the argument goes, despite years of seeking, an adult must make a blind assumption that there is indeed a higher being. I say ‘adult’ because many children are indoctrinated at an early age and are brain-washed into believing there is a God. All I can say is this: if there really is a god then She must have one hell of a devious, dare I say sadistic, sense of humour. Just look at the endless calamities in human history! The senseless cruelty; the killing, the countless wars of our species; and, the natural catastrophe’s that have resulted in millions of deaths of innocent children and other bystanders. Believers will claim that God’s ways are mysterious and She has her purposes of which we souls have no understanding. Well whatever his/her plan, if all-powerful, then I say I’ll have none of it. Yet, I’ll always continue to try to figure out why things are happening, and look for meaning. And, if there is anything that approaches the divine, I think there’s something in this constant searching.
Some would argue that looking for truth is not enough. I contend that it is. I equate truth with contentment – that internal/eternal peace some people are fortunate to find. To the people who think this eternal search is fruitless, if you’re truly happy and feel this quest is unnecessary, I simply say “lucky you”. However, my suspicion is that for many folks this is not about permanent contentment but is rather a passing state of mind. Locked into a happy-sad rollercoaster they somehow find the happy peaks sufficient. I constantly examine myself, especially when I’m despondent, searching for solutions that will engender a greater sense of well-being in my life. My grand plan has always involved getting away from the ups and downs in life –and I won’t accept anything less.
“Living is easy with your eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see”, wrote Lennon and McCartney in their Beatles song “Strawberry Fields”. Sure, some people just get along but have they found something lasting? I think not. Thoreau said that most people live lives “of quiet desperation”. Analyzing yourself might be hard work but it’s the only way to enlightenment - just keep examining life until you see pathways to contentment. Eventually you can even find the middle path along that emotional rollercoaster.
After taking personal journeys that have led to peace many people then turn to finding solutions for society at large. At times this is done collectively. Two striking examples come from the American and French revolutions. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote these magical words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Good stuff! A prescription for a just and peaceful society that also allows for the pursuit of things that makes one happy (too bad that many in our materialistic economy think that happiness comes from having and consuming goods). Trouble is, happiness is not contentment. It is a transitory state. Impermanent.
The French revolution’s motto was a simpler cry for “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” - I like it better than Jefferson’s statement because it is more complete and “on the mark”. Give everyone freedom, equal opportunity and a friendly communal society, and you probably will have something closest to an ideal country. Both country’s revolutions were motivated by the general populace who desired to control their own destiny and to let citizens have a chance to live in a fair and meaningful way - a society that allows people to grow and develop. The key for any great and peaceful society lies in its ability to create the conditions for everyone to pursue their goals. The consequence is a more content populace because individuals are permitted to determine their own destiny…mirroring a society’s hard-fought achievement of creating and/or finding its own independence and self-determination.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a free country where individual rights are respected, then take advantage of that freedom to question everything. I especially recommend an endless search for personal meaning and constant self-development. Looking at yourself, seeing the changes and where they have taken you, looking at your habitual activities, over and over again, will all hold clues in your quest for peace and contentment. And, eventually, you’ll find that in the searching is the finding. That is what wise old Socrates was getting at….