The Examined Life: An Expedition
Dig into your old journals, photo albums, and see what you can learn about yourself.
Have you ever heard that disclaimer at the end of investment company ads, “Past performance is not indicative of future results?” That’s true of humans, too. My 11 years as a nurse in no way predicted my current life as a writer, although if I go back far enough I find the roots of today’s career. There was also a time when I was much more judgmental, but hard knocks had a silver lining: opening my eyes to compassion. There was no way I could have predicted either turn of events.
Still, I have found merit in looking at my “past performance.” The Greek philosopher Socrates famously said that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” How about doing some examining?
Consider using a weekend afternoon to launch an Examined Life Expedition. Revisiting wishes, frustrations, and successes helps us figure out who we are, our relationships, our patterns, how we have grown, and room for further growth. Thoughtful detective work can yield nuggets of self-discovery, and the means for this adventure are right here at our fingertips! Some tips:
- Dig out the diary. Search (by visual scan, or electronically if yours is online) for key words and names, as well as entries for the same date in different years to help shed light on patterns, events, and your responses. Even childhood diaries, or those with short, factual entries can yield a surprising amount of information.
- What have you made? Art therapists uncover a lot by looking at creative output. Whether you are reading poems, thumbing through a portfolio, or reminiscing about adventures in baking, a close look at what you’ve made, your motivations at the time, and how your focus has shifted will reveal a lot about your life and growth.
- Find the shoebox or scrapbook. Whose birthday cards did you keep? Why are the ticket stubs from that 1989 concert so significant? Your deepest desires and tendencies often show up as recurring themes, and you can gain entirely new insights now that time has elapsed.
- Delve into the attic, basement, or storage locker. What we cast aside also tells a story. For example, I have a bag of much larger clothes awaiting donation—they remind me of not caring for myself, and of the determination and reorganization needed to become fit again.
- Dust off report cards and performance evaluations. These documents transmit a lot about formative years or longstanding habits. Maybe, for example, your report cards comment on a lack of focus. Were there big challenges at home? Or were you simply daydreaming, longing to be outdoors? What has changed?
Now that you’ve done some excavating, what next? It’s important to keep the focus on insight, not judgment. Forgive your old self if you find evidence of selfishness, superficiality, etc. Therapists sometimes use this trick: imagine what you would say to yourself if you were someone else! How would you compassionately counsel someone who had developed an unwanted habit or unhealthy relationship?
Try making notes on what you’ve learned and how to go forward:
- List and compare adjectives (e.g., joyful, sloppy, confused) that describe your younger self and your current self. Pay attention to what has shifted, and what may need to shift.
- Make some resolutions (you don’t have to wait for the New Year!).
- Write an understanding and forgiving letter to your younger self.
- Write to your future self, including advice and encouragement based on what you’ve just learned.
This kind of expedition can yield precious treasure. Here’s hoping that your detective work yields a fresh sense of focus and renewed gusto for living.
About the Author