Is the unexamined life worth living? | by Moses Budiwarman | Mar, 2024

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No, but this question also doesn’t make sense

Die Pflüger — Käthe Kollwitz

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this quote that appeared during my reading of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The book was an autobiographical book of the author, it is a story about a surgeon’s fight with lung cancer. In the first few pages he touches on Socrates’ idea “Is the unexamined life worth living?”, but he doesn’t elaborate much on the quote in the rest of the book. Nonetheless, the book is very very good, and the quote has stuck with me these past few weeks.

Dealing with my new internship, a lot of school material to be studied, a recently failed test, and applications towards med school, there has been a lot of work being piled up, and with that a lot of stress and anxiety. I seldom feel tranquil for all my life, and most of the sources of my anxiety usually stem from my inability to foresee how the future will go. Statements like: will I make it, is it even worth it, why the fuck do I even believe I can even become a doctor? suck me deeper into this abyss. I do sometimes try to find a source of light by calling friends, communicating with family, writing about my feelings, watching films, playing music, exercising, and reading books, all these activities give me the affirmations to be excited for the coming days. I love my life, and now I’m becoming optimistic, cherishing my skills, trying to resurface my insecurities, and saying to myself each day that I wouldn’t trade my situation with anyone else.

But that would be a lie. A couple of weeks ago I was reminded of my scoliosis, a condition that I would learn is permanent, and something I would have to face every day. Sure, it isn’t as bad as having cancer, but it still does fucking suck. I don’t think I can bring myself to shine a light on my condition, and reading Dostoevsky does not help at all.

Speaking on Dostoevsky, if he was asked the question is the unexamined life worth living? It wouldn’t be surprising if he said “no, and neither does the examined life”. See, Dostoevsky was a very deep thinker, too smart for his own good. I remember loosely from his Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky writes about “the intelligent man cannot feel satisfied with himself because he is conscious of his desires, which come from his deeply rooted insecurities, it is rather the unintelligent common man which can live happily, perhaps in bliss”. That’s loosely written from what I remember of the book, but many of Dostoevsky’s writings speak similarly about the existential dread we face, and that examining life would be worthless because frankly, there is no reason, only impulses.

Perhaps the antihero to Dostoevsky’s world would be the mind of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who faced countless trials and tribulations, perhaps too much for the average man. He was a holocaust survivor, who faced the death of his wife, a forced abortion, and spent 4 years at Auschwitz. Despite his experience which would have broken any man psychologically, perhaps even to death by his account, he made it his life’s mission to prove to the world that man can look for meaning despite its circumstances. I find myself rereading parts of this book whenever I feel that I need to, because of its teachings and values which have been cemented into my heart.

Socrates, states that the the unexamined life is not worth living. Frankl would ask how is it even possible to prove that an unexamined life or any life is not worth living. Frankl clarifies to the readers throughout the book that no one can say why or not life is meaningful to you, or the meaning of why the circumstances in your situation have occurred, or if there is any god that would save us from the hell in our world. But Frankl can guarantee that it is in our power to choose how we can respond to each situation, no matter how dreadful. The meaning of our lives, should not be a singular statement, it should be a lifelong goal, it should mean taking responsibility, it should not be defined by anyone but ourselves, and most importantly the unique purpose of your life can be discovered within your human psyche, and no amount of suffering can take away your attitude to your own life.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

If there was one quote that I wanted to share with the people I love.

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