(A followup on the Aug. 16 post, “Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness.)
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” So said Socrates a long, long time ago. It’s still true, and it’s still Greek to a lot of people. Introspection, never very popular, is further discouraged by our hectic pace of life and the distractions and propaganda we inundate ourselves with. Insight not only takes a lot of mental effort but requires it to be applied in quiet, undistracted contemplation. Who has time for that these days?
It’s human nature to cling to habitual ways of thinking and behaving even when they stop working for us. Better the devil we know. Change is painful, but emotional discomfort must be tolerated in order to achieve the rewards of an “ah-ha! moment.” Some people are naturally insightful, but, when I was a practicing psychotherapist, I found that most patients came kicking and screaming into insight. People usually avoid seeking help until they become intolerably miserable. It’s suffering that impels them to undertake the humiliating and painful process of looking clearly into the face of terrifying and shameful inner realities.
Insight oriented therapy is a learning process during which a person is directed toward self- examination, learning how they got to be in the mess they are in and, hopefully, how to extricate themselves from it. Ideally they develop new, more effective attitudes, coping strategies and behaviors. Since the world keeps changing and new approaches are periodically necessary, the person’s ultimate goal is to continue to pursue, even after therapy is terminated, an “examined life” on their own.
Recall Aristotle’s definition of happiness: “being good and doing good.” To do good you first have to define “good.” Insight obviously helps in that process. Many people rely on some established authority, like the Bible for instance, to tell them what’s good, bad, right, wrong. While it’s fine to take such factors into consideration, it’s essential to look at the facts and think for ourselves as well. That includes questioning long established notions imparted to us, in part, by fallible authorities such as parents and teachers, and yes, even the Bible. Reluctance to question long established and deeply engrained assumptions or conventions may explain why so many people embrace things such as racism or gay bashing as “good” when even a modicum of introspection should tell them otherwise.
The conservative mindset honors tradition over innovation and change. It tolerates or actively promotes authoritarianism. The author of “Cosmic Casino,” Joseph D. Nehemiah, dubbed three disparate wings of the Republican party “The Unholy Trinity.” The Greedy ignore facts such as climate change or continue to adhere to the long debunked theory of “trickle down economics.” because they profit off of the status quo. The Ignorant have limited education and relatively less facility at abstract thinking. They are easily misled and manipulated. The Superstitious blindly follow religious doctrine in the face of science and other pragmatic considerations that contradict it. Each of these groups, for their own reasons, aren’t big on introspection.
Liberals are far from a bunch of saints, but being more educated as a group (refer to Pew Foundation statistics on political party affiliation and educational level) and generally more insightful, they tend to be more open to change. There’s synergy between a superior fund of knowledge, mental flexibility and insight. Another valuable asset to the development of an insightful mind, empathy, helps us put ourselves in another’s shoes and see ourselves as others see us. Partly determined genetically, empathy is more typical of liberals than conservatives who often dismiss it as a weakness of the “bleeding hearts.”
Sinking into a morass of fear and anger, society today appears to be approaching rock bottom. Could our communal discontent lead us, as it did for my patients, to a point where taking more time to think, question, reframe, grow and change will feel preferable to blindly groping unhappily along our current path? Is the “woke” movement a sign this is beginning to happen? Maybe it’s too much to hope for, but, if our misery does compel us to resort to more self-examination, the changes that might ensue could go a long way toward making us all happier and making the world a happier place.