It’s easy to think of Socrates’ famous call to the examined life as a masculine endeavor. I’ve seen the quote tattooed on a man’s arm, heard it in locker room speeches, and felt its tug on my own soul. A well known line from Hamlet is similarly evocative: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” These heroic sentiments can make even a hardened man shed a tear, as he recognizes a worthy First Principle. But desiring the examined life is one thing, actually living it is another.
Years ago I worked for a drug rehab program at the county jail. Inmates frequently tested me for my street cred (of which I had none). Some of the cops working there hassled me as well. Word got out I had studied philosophy, and this added to the perception I was bookish, with no street smarts.
This work situation exposed to me some of my hidden shame: doubts I had about whether I was man enough to deal with real life tough guys. So I searched for ways to prove my manly mettle to the others, even as I doubted I had any. When I was invited to train alongside the cops in some of their special maneuvers, I was eager to do it.
Now here was something in my wheelhouse, I thought: running and jumping and generally being athletic. I’m going to show those cops a thing or two! We were taken to a huge structure with no windows that simulated the dark interior of a building on fire. Inside was a crazy labyrinth through which each of us were expected to crawl, feeling our way through the pitch-dark with our hands. I was keenly aware all the cops were watching when I took my turn.
It didn’t go well. With a big oxygen tank on my back, I could barely move through the
claustrophobic crawl-space. The twists and turns were designed to disorient, and within 60 seconds I wasn’t exactly sure which way was up. There were dead-ends, which meant I had to inch my way out backwards. This I did, but sometimes into another dead-end. My hands searched for an acceptable opening in any direction. My throat felt choked. They had warned me: control your breathing or else fear will get the best of you.
Fear did get the best of me and I banged on the wall: the signal for rescue needed. Hidden doors opened and in a few seconds I felt a hand on my collar pulling me out. Outside the building I ripped off the oxygen mask and gulped fresh air. I was drenched in sweat, my hands shaking. The cops thought this was hilarious. I felt humiliated; my shame in full view to those I sought to impress. I wanted to disappear, but, after gathering my emotions, I forced myself to try again.
Going back into that dark, stifling hot building was one of the hardest things I ever did. But my resistance to do it was not because of the ordeal of completing the maze, difficult as that was. I was more terrified to place myself in a position, once again, where my personal shame was exposed. This has everything to do with the difficulty of living the examined life.
There is an unavoidable ambivalence connected to the path of self-discovery. We’re drawn to the unexplored within and also frightened by it. Accepting the call to an examined life is heroic, because it is a call to go beyond fear to freedom. Refusing the call means remaining, in some sense, a slave.
The philosopher Eva Brann goes further, noting that the unexamined life is not merely not worth living, but it is already dead: “…the unsearched-out life is unlivable…. you’re a grey shade, in Hades before your time.”
Considering our attraction to the examined life, and the dreadful consequences of refusing the call, why do we feel any resistance to seeking and embracing our true and free selves? One explanation concerns the experience of human shame, common to all.
Shame feelings are a torment to the soul. If self-examination threatens to reveal agonizing shame, then resistance to this process begins to make sense. Felt shame is an enemy to personal freedom because it squashes the impulse for the examined life.
Dr. Ernest Kurtz, in his concise and brilliant book, “Guilt and Shame,” states that both guilt and shame involve feeling “bad” about something. They differ in that we feel a pang of guilt over something we do, but we feel the ache of shame over something we are. Shame is the perception of an ugly flaw within our own being, an inherent defect that makes us uniquely worse than other people. We may feel embarrassed because someone sees our misdeeds (guilt), but we feel humiliated when someone sees our shame.
So we go to great lengths to hide our shame from others and from ourselves. Often we develop a mental image of an ideal self, a comforting version of ourselves we imagine without the shame, which we also present to the world. This is an understandable strategy for suppressing shame feelings, but a deeply flawed one for pursuing the examined life.
Despite feeling enormous resistance, I attempted the dark maze again and this time I controlled my breathing better. After 15 minutes of steady progress, I reached the end and emerged into the sunshine. Again I ripped my mask off, this time in triumph, but there wasn’t a single cop there to witness my victory, except for the trainer supervising my effort. They’d all gone in for lunch.
I’m grateful now that none of the cops were there to see me complete the maze successfully, because that gave me the opportunity to wrestle with my internal shame, not my superficial embarrassment. The examined life demanded I honestly face how I felt about myself, apart from any observer. Facing this shame was much harder, and much more fruitful, than merely proving something to others.
This was a turning point for me for examining my true self and finding some freedom in the examined life – a call that is neither exclusively masculine nor feminine, but human.