Public debate in America has been compared to silos where we, and those who think like us, are good, smart, and right, and those who disagree with us are bad, stupid, and wrong. We may not use those words but that’s how we interact with people with whom we disagree. These silos lead to our attraction to people and “information” that affirm what we already believe, hyper-criticism of people with opposing perspectives, and our inability to argue without having a fight.
Where we often go—where I often go—is something like this: How can I convince them I’m right and they’re wrong? What argument, “link”, authoritative voice will prove their belief is wrong? But what if we need to turn this thinking on its head?
Writing about Socrates, Robert Paul Wolff states:
The keynote of Socrates faith is the belief that the unexamined life is not worth living…it is an appeal to our own sense of dignity as rational creatures. Can I respect myself—can I ask others to respect me—if I do not continually reflect upon the principles which guide my life? Can I call myself fully human if I go from day to day blindly, sheeplike, failing to subject my life and my acts to rigorous critical examination? Socrates answers no…and he was prepared to die for his belief.
According to Socrates and many religious believers, a remedy for our divisions with adversaries, and more importantly, the remedy for hardened human silos is regular self-examination. Many will consider this remedy too mundane or simplistic to be of any practical value, but done well it can be transforming.
Like physical exercise that expands our range of motion, the regular practice of self-examination, also called examination of conscience, will make us more reflective, more aware of who we are, our strengths and weaknesses. If you believe this practice is too mundane, too simplistic to be of any practical value, try honestly acknowledging your faults and weaknesses, especially when they occur over and over again.
How do we do this? Many conduct a disciplined examination of conscience at the end of the day, looking back on what they’ve experienced, said, and done (or left undone), but this examination can be practiced at any time. Typically, it consists of asking oneself a handful of open-ended questions: “Did I…?”, “Was I…?”, considering both positive and negative words and behavior. What you find is the questions get harder the more conscientious you are about the practice because you will see deeper into yourself and gradually become more honest with both the questions you pose and the answers you give. Many find reference points very helpful in conducting this examination: The Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes in The Sermon on The Mount, The Ten Commandments, or for non-believers a list of the classical virtues: honesty, courage, fortitude, generosity, temperance, prudence, justice, and so forth.
There are masterful books and articles on this subject, but you know what they say about the thousand-mile journey: we have to take the first step. Find a quiet place and start asking open-ended questions about your day, words, actions, and priorities. “Was I generous to those I encountered today and on social media?” “Did I go out of my way to help ____ today?” “Did I consume too much wine?” “Was I dishonest with anyone?” Naturally, the questions will differ for each person, though the subject matter is often similar. Many believers conclude this examination with a prayer for forgiveness and Divine assistance, but for believers and non-believers alike, one practical resolution to address a weakness (I will try to do this, or I will try to avoid doing this) is an essential step.
Of course, you will find yourself making the same resolution over and over, as Catholics find themselves confessing the same sin over and over. Humanly speaking, this can be frustrating, but over time progress is made if we take the practice seriously. You might ask, why should I seek a remedy from division with adversaries when they aren’t the least bit interested? Because you will grow as a person and because your adversaries can grow too. Speaking about Socrates’s philosophy, Wolff said, “This is not a truth of physics or mathematics which one can prove by axioms or experiments.” In his parables, of The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son, Jesus goes even further: to grow into a larger life, we must love our adversaries and those who reject us.
Some (believers and non-believers alike) fear that honest self-examination will threaten deeply held beliefs. For believers, if God is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, we should fear no question, scientific development, or political/policy idea considered in prayer. For non-believers, human growth requires stretching ourselves, and this cannot be accomplished if we hold unchallenged beliefs. In other words, if all we have are unexamined or superficially examined beliefs we cling to like a safety blanket, then we can’t rid ourselves of them too soon.
We cannot practice daily self examination, an examination of conscience, without growing as human beings and reducing divisions with others, even those we dislike and resent, because we come to recognize in ourselves many of the qualities we resent in others.
It’s an exciting and demanding thousand-mile journey. Take that step.
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