Living a Life Well-Examined
‘Your example of living a life well-examined.’
So read the compliment that had been written on a piece of paper stuck to my back, the outcome of a morning spent writing notes of gratitude. My first reaction was one of awe — how eloquently phrased! — but it came with its fair share of contemplation.
What does it mean, a life ‘well-examined’?
And, more importantly, am I living it?
Having had a long conversation with the owner of the handwriting in which the compliment was written, I had a vague conception as to what it meant. A person who examines their life is one who is conscious of their actions, their habits, their personal characteristics, and how these three elements — and more — combine to fuse the series of events we then label ‘A Life’.
I’d say one of my greatest weaknesses is my chronic self-criticism. I’m very harsh on myself; beyond how I ‘perform’ (academically, socially, etc) I’m also critical of my intentions, the outcomes of my actions and, in the way self-perpetuating vices go, my own criticisms. At times this constant examination serves me good, as it motivates me to strive for a stronger and better version of myself. But on the days I end up spiralling around in my own doubts, and doubts about doubts, I think it’d be more appropriate to call it a life ‘excessively’ examined.
So what did this compliment mean?
I’d like to think it referred to the person I’m striving to become, not the person I’ve been up until now. I believe that one who examines their life in a positive manner is one who not only recognizes and accepts their personal flaws but also takes active measures to better themselves.
Which is something I’ve reflected a lot on, and striving to do. Being in Brazil has made me realize (disclaimer: I promise this won’t be a pseudo-philosophical ‘gap-yah’ rave) that a lot of the habits I had back home have terrible consequences for other people.
My indiscriminate consumption of goods, edible or otherwise, for example. In Hong Kong, I’d go out and buy something if I suspected even the slightest need, and sometimes it’d have been a purchase I could’ve done without. All for the end consequence of yet more stuff left in a landfill. I’d eat fruits like papayas and pineapples in summer and winter alike, regardless of the fact that a) that’s super unnatural and b) it probably took several vehicles, aerial and otherwise, to deliver my privilege. I wouldn’t think twice about leaving the shower water on as I shampooed my hair, even if this meant that somewhere, someone might run the risk of having their house burn down because there wouldn’t be enough water available to quench the flames.
Little things, like that. Clothing, too — how many times did I clean out my wardrobe, only to find things I hadn’t worn for ages? So many extraneous things that I had found ‘essential’ until now, as I am, living out of a backpack and with very little possessions.
Which is why I’ve now made the decision to live a life well examined, and change my ways. I’ve already been doing several things to reduce the ways in which I negatively affect the lives of others: I no longer take plastic bags at supermarkets; I don’t buy excessively packaged snacks, instead opting for fruits; I eat locally produced fruits and vegetables (which, admittedly, is easier in Brazil); I try to hand-make things I need out of recycled or already present materials (after purchasing a spool of 400+ meters of yarn I’ve crocheted a pencil case, a Kindle case, an earring holder, a potted plant coaster and a headband, all things I needed but didn’t buy, but rather made with what I have); I use minimal amounts of water in the shower, and use minimally packaged soap bars as opposed to products in plastic containers.
Clothing-wise, I’ve made it a goal to shop at second-hand stores to reduce the demand for the production of yet more stuff, or to buy directly from people who design and make their clothing (I’d support their art whilst reducing the negative impact industrial processes have on the environment). I have yet to actually buy any clothing here in Brazil, but all the earrings I’ve gotten thus far (oops, earring collector here!) have been made by people I’ve talked to, or produced by communities I know.
Slowly and surely, I’m beginning to life a life ‘well-examined’. Of course there are moments when I slip up here and there, but I’m determined to live in a way that not only respects my own existence, but that of others.