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Alex Lickerman M.D.

The Unlived Life

The dangers of too much introspection

Photo: wonderland

By nature I've always been an excessively introspective person. My entire life I've believed, as Socrates said, that "the unexamined life isn't worth living." Even now, my wife frequently accuses me of living mostly in my own head. But in my first year of college, in response to my voicing my commitment to this credo, a friend of mine once replied, "Nor is the unlived life worth examining." This struck me as more than just a clever reversal of ancient wisdom. It struck me as valid. When he said it, I realized just how much my commitment to introspection and self-observation had prevented me from fully engaging in life.

In high school, I'd had many friends but had belonged to no one group. I'd always felt an arrogant sense of pride in thinking myself supremely egalitarian and far above the silly games my adolescent friends would often play. I enjoyed my reputation as a wise observer of life, the person to whom others came for help with their problems. But soon after my college friend said that to me, I realized, looking back, that in reality I'd simply been disconnected, not only from people but from my own experiences.

It's far easier to watch others swim in life's currents that to swim in them oneself. Further, watching others engage in life while remaining disengaged does bring some benefits:

  1. You can avoid disappointment by remaining disconnected from any strong desires.
  2. You can more easily learn from others' mistakes without having to make them yourself.
  3. You can help others by offering them wisdom gained from observation and introspection.
  4. You have space and time to learn about yourself through constant introspection.

I continue to agree with Socrates that the unexamined life isn't worth living. If we refuse to self-reflect at all, we'll never be able to recognize our mistakes and grow, never become wiser, and therefore never become any happier than we are right now. But to engage in self-reflection at the expense of participating in life risks several important things:

  1. Forfeiting the opportunity to enjoy the pleasure that being connected to others brings. Neuroscience is finally catching up to psychology in proving we are elementally social beings. Even the most independent among us requires fulfilling social interaction.
  2. Believing we've internalized important lessons simply by observing the mistakes of others. It's one thing to learn a lesson intellectually (e.g., gossiping is a poor choice) and quite another to acquire genuine life wisdom that leads to different feelings and results in different behavior.
  3. Believing advice is the greatest help we can provide others who are suffering. It's not. The greatest gift we can provide others who are suffering is encouragement—encouragement that draws its power from our having experienced similar sufferings that we've overcome ourselves.
  4. Accepting a false image of ourselves as true. If all our ideas about ourselves are formed from observation of lives in a disengaged state—a state in which our limits and negativity are rarely, if ever, challenged—we'll likely find little opportunity or reason to ever challenge our limits. Only painful life experiences bring us to that. It just seems to be the way we're built.

After my college friend said what he did, I realized (during a period of self-examination) that in high school I'd remained in a state of detachment to minimize the risk of ever having to face disappointment. Remaining detached from life and from other people felt safe and provided me a pedestal from which to observe others—and feel superior to them. But in doing so I'd created a flat, empty, and unsatisfying life.

I wasn't, of course, really standing above anyone, but rather avoiding experience. Truth be told, it wasn't until I plunged into the stream of life in an entirely engaging way during my second year of college, felt the shock of entry into its cold water, and started bumping into other people as a fellow life participant (sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not) that I began to acquire life experiences worthy of reflection. Experiences I could push against that would force me to become stronger. That's when true growth began to occur, showing me that what had passed for it before had been only its appearance. It took me roughly a decade after my college friend said what he did for me to achieve what I consider to be a healthy balance between living life and reflecting on the life I live. But nothing has made me as grateful: getting that balance right was what freed me to truly enjoy my life.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

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Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.