Life Examination

According to Plato, Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” [1] Therefore, according to Socrates I have led a most worthy life thus far. It seems that I have been examining my life non-stop for as long as I can remember.


When I was a child, as I remember it now, I was more of an observer than a participant. My older brother was already on the scene. He was nonverbal, autistic and very low functioning. My mother would try to answer my questions about him. When there were no answers, she would tell me that as well.

I’m not sure if Socrates would have included lives of children to be judged as worthy or not by his criteria. Probably he wouldn’t. After all, childhood is the time to be living, not examining; soaking up experiences, not analyzing them.


Teenagers examine their lives through a haze of hormonal imbalance on its way to equilibrium. I think that a teenager doesn’t examine his or her life as much as pre-examine, or set up a blueprint for the life he or she would like to have: a life that will provide happiness. As a teen, I was constantly examining my life. I came to the conclusion, more often than not, that I didn’t measure up. I would bet that this is common to most teenagers, except for the most confident. I’ll bet that the most confident of teens make parents examine their own lives with a fine-tooth comb.


What does it actually mean to examine one’s own life? There is no predetermined protocol. One can’t take two fingers and tap on one’s own chest in different places, as a doctor would, to gage a patient’s health. One can’t examine one’s own entrails, as an haruspex, a person expert in divination based on the inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals. [2] It is difficult to do this even metaphorically, when one is using one’s own entrails to process life. Psychiatrists perform the same function on one’s psychic entrails, in vivo, as an haruspex does, but I doubt this is what Socrates in mind.

Here’s what I think

There are different stages of adulthood. It’s like high school in a way, with phases ranging from the neophyte Freshman all the way to the wizened Seniors. In early adulthood, I examined my life based on the Leave It To Beaver culture of the late 1950s: the nuclear family; the family where two brothers never got very angry or very depressed and always were pals at the end of half-an-hour; the family where no jealousy raged; the family where father and mother fixed everything, or learned a life lesson from those pesky kids. This is the ultimate in cognitive dissonance between the family life portrayed on TV and real life for me in my family faced with the intractible issue of my brother Mike. I should have realized that my template for my future life was just so much fantasy.

Mid-course adjustments

Perhaps this is better known as a “mid-life crisis”, when one realizes that the plan formed during the teen years was ill advised, or unattainable. An examination of one’s life at this point serves the purpose of more finely defining the important issues and adjusting to a new plan for happiness. We can think of this as an examination of the entrails of the body of work that made up the first portion of adulthood. However, while an haruspex would read sacrificial entrails as omens predicting a divine will, someone examining the whys and wherefores of his or her mid-life crisis would be able to change the future.

Post mid-life examination

If one is very fortunate and makes it past mid-life relatively intact, does examination of one’s own life serve any purpose? I think it does. By the time one has passed a certain point in life, generally one has witnessed a range of human experiences and has participated in a good many of them. Examination of one’s life from this vantage point enables one to judge whether it has been successful. One can make adjustments. Even from the perch of old age, adjustments can be made.

I hope that Socrates was not merely commenting about the worthiness of an examined life, but rather the value of a life revealed by actions taken after examination results are posted.

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