Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The examined life

The top of the chalkboard in my high school Western Civilization class was emblazoned with this quote:

"The unexamined life is not worth living." - Socrates

A sophomoric sophomore or an eleventh grader acting like an 11-year-old would sometimes venture to alter the quote, either by erasing part of it or by adding letters here or a word there. Each time this happened, we would snicker and await the reaction of our teacher - Mr. L.R. Smith - when he entered the room.

It was always the same. He simply rewrote the quote and started class as though nothing had happened.

At first glance, it's obvious that Mr. Smith was following classic teaching (and parenting) advice by not reacting to this non-destructive, rebellious behavior from the children he was charged with teaching. I believe there was much more to his lack of a reaction, however. By writing the quote in chalk instead of using a more permanent medium, he was actually encouraging us to alter it. And, by altering it, we were doing exactly what he wanted us to do. We were examining our lives.

I clearly remember the only time I altered the quote. My first serious relationship had just come to an end, and I was devastated. Feeling uncharacteristically rebellious, I walked into the classroom, erased the first two words of the quote, then slouched in my seat and waited for Mr. Smith's reaction. He entered the classroom, paused for just a moment, and then - as always - fixed the quote and started class. But from where I was sitting, I could see his brow furrow just a little.

I spent the next ten minutes avoiding his eyes. In that furrowing of his brow, I could tell Mr. Smith was deeply concerned for whichever student in the class thought that life was not worth living. I'm sure he quickly determined that I was the student in question, but by the end of the class he no longer had cause for concern. The mortifying scenario of being escorted to see my adviser because I was suicidal was enough for me to get my act together. I engaged in class as I never had, and by the end of the hour I felt better than I had since the first weeks of the ill-fated relationship.

Did I truly believe that life was not worth living that day? Not really. But when we are young, we tend to think the smallest misfortune is a devastating calamity. The same is true when we become too self-involved as adults. Invariably, we will all have times when we question why we should bother to keep moving forward. It is during these times when we are given the gift of a moment - be it the furrowed brow of a friend or a vibrant double rainbow after a downpour - to stop and examine our lives. In that examination, I believe we will always find something that makes life worth living.


  1. When I was a sophomore in high school I had a boyfriend who lived out of town. I had been calling him daily - long distance, mind you - and knew that a very large phone bill was coming. In a pathetic attempt to distract my mom from the phone bill I came down stairs from my room and announced, "I want to kill myself." She looked at me, puzzled, and asked, "Hm, how do you plan to do that?" I responded by saying, "I don't know. I hadn't really thought about it." She continued to look at me for a few minutes and nonchalantly said, "Ok, well, pack your bags I'll take you to a treatment center." I immediately thought in my head - treatment center? What? This isn't going how I expected - so I say to her, "I can't go to a treatment center, I have finals." She said she would call my school counselor and have them moved. Needless to say, I spent the next two weeks in a treatment center with children who had problems much larger than my own. I never said anything so ridiculous again.

  2. Interesting, too, when you think about what you removed from that quote: "the unexamined." Anyone who considers suicide must not realize how vast "the unexamined" really is, and what it might hold. Your former teacher sounds like a very wise man. Thanks for the post!