There is a quote by Socrates, the Greek philosopher, which says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This is, at face value, trite. It’s the stale sort of first-semester psychology major quote that you’ve heard a hundred times, or seen tattooed on the side of some 19 year old in a two-piece bikini at the beach. The meaning for me, at 37 years old, has more to do with the context in which Socrates is reported to have said those words. The quote is actually from Plato’s book titled “Apology” (The more formal title being the fancier-sounding “Apologia Socratis.”). The term apology in this context doesn’t mean the same sort of thing that it means in modern Western culture, where it is seeking forgiveness. It is simply an explanation of one’s position on a thing. Here’s the context. Socrates was on trial for his life. The charges against him were “corrupting the youth” and “impiety.” The specific crimes were that Socrates had apparently:
- Failed to recognize and worship the gods of the city.
- Begun to introduce new gods not worshiped in the city.
In reality, Socrates was being put on trial because he was asking existential and philosophical questions which might shift the culture of pantheistic worship as it currently was in the Greek empire. It is, as Socrates’ trial is wrapping up, where he is found guilty by a 3/5 margin, that the same jury voted for the death penalty as his punishment. Being given the floor to speak, having refused to flee the city and seek refuge elsewhere, the now-seventy-year-old Socrates is speaking just prior to consuming the cup of Hemlock poison which would end him. In that context those words were uttered. It is a rallying cry for those who understand the depth of what is being said, and something which I believe applies to us in all facets of our lives.
So why am I ranting about this topic?
Because so many of us live unexamined lives, hemmed in by the limitations of preconception. We carry around a belief that because we never have, we never will. The idea may take root because of some family baggage, some work history, or some workout failure which has you believing something about yourself that is only true because you choose to believe it is.
- I am not well (educated/spoken/connected) enough to lead this company.
- I’m not strong in my shoulders and back. I’ve never done a pull-up, so I don’t think I can.
- Since I’m unhappy with myself, it only makes sense that no one else would be either.
Elephants and Socrates
I was once told a story about how elephants are trained. Prepare yourselves, animal lovers, it isn’t the nicest of stories! Elephants are large animals with an enormous strength within them to knock over trees, uproot buildings, and thoroughly demolish anything which gets in their way when they are angry. So when handlers want to train an elephant that their confines are impenetrable, they begin by taking a baby elephant, and shackling it to a weight or object so large that the elephant calf is unable to move.
As the animal grows, it learns to accept the shackle which is placed upon its leg and by the time that the elephant is physically mature, it is spiritually crushed. The handler need not even tether the shackle to anything…the mere presence of the shackle is sufficient to convince the adult elephant that escape is futile, movement is forbidden, and so this beaten, life-worn animal stands idly by when all that is required is to simply walk away. It does not because it does not believe that it can.
Many of us are guilty of this in our workouts. The run-up to a max lift is smooth, we make gains, until we hit a limit that is in our head, and we fail. And what’s interesting to me is that science seems to indicate we fail less because of our actual ability and more because we simply lack the belief that we can. Somewhere, our bench press is hamstrung because of a shackle that is upon us – I have a frozen shoulder, I have nothing left, my glycogen stores are toast, I need this, I need that, maybe a session or two with a Slingshot, etc. What you need to do is to get under the weight and move it – that’s it.
As I watch my daughter grow, I find myself wondering just how powerful and impactful she could be if only she could grow to adulthood as unshackled by the external world and its pressures – testing boundaries, ignoring yesterday’s limits, and pushing past self-imposed barriers. In many ways, she’s an ordinary child in that respect, children naturally test themselves. What happened to us as adults? Why are we so afraid?
- What is it about chasing our dream that makes us run to the safety of a mortgage and a 401k?
- What is it about testing our abilities that makes us shrink from greatness to adequacy?
- What is it about adulthood that makes us accept the status quo instead of demanding greatness?
The short answer is that it’s fear of failure and the subsequent shame. My daughter doesn’t care if she fails. She doesn’t care if she looks silly. She doesn’t care if people are watching while she does “twirls” in the parking lot at her school. She doesn’t care if she “appears inauthentic” while playing her one-note song on a recorder and declaring herself an expert. She knows only that she desires to do something and so she begins doing it. She hasn’t met the cynicism of the critic yet. She hasn’t met the harsh teacher. She hasn’t met the self-doubts that hold us back. You and I have. So now we live in shame from past failure, fear of success, and in the throes of a mediocre, unfulfilled and unexamined existence.
What if I fail? What if I succeed? What if I succeed at being a failure? What if I come across as inauthentic?
Yeah, what if?
What if you look back wistfully 20, 30, or 40 years from now and say, “What if…” I’m willing to wager that in that moment, the what if will center more on what could have been achieved than upon what could have been lost. I’m certain that fear would not have held you back, and that a different decision would have been reached. One in which you press onward toward a goal, be it in the gym, in your career, or in a relationship. Don’t fall victim to this trap. Push outward, test yourself, and demand better in your life. Don’t permit yourself to live the unexamined life, and to die a martyr of mediocrity in any aspect of your life. Wring the life out of life, and see what can be instead of what is.
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden.