New Year’s Reflection

written by Neil Levy

It’s the time of year at which many of us take stock of how our lives are going. It is more or less arbitrary where we mark the end of the year, but because the convention is shared, our lives have a rhythm that is marked by the calendar, and the length of the year makes it a good unit for assessing some aspects of our life. We might ask whether we stuck to the resolutions made 12 months earlier. We might ask more general questions about how our life is going: have we been good parents or partners? Have we pursued worthwhile goals? Have the steps we have taken toward those goals between well-designed?

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates is famously reputed to have said. More recently, Mill echoed Socrates, arguing that it was better to live a life of self-reflection and be unsatisfied than be a pig who did not reflect but was happy. The idea that we can and should reflect on our lives and their trajectories remains deeply attractive to us and finds expression in psychotherapy and self-help books, as well as the annual ritual of taking stock.

I suspect, however, that taking stock has costs. To see what I mean, think about an experience you may share with me. Suppose you’ve had a recent break, which you enjoyed greatly. Perhaps you went for long walks which revitalized you; perhaps you read books you’ve been putting off; perhaps you just watched a box set. You had, you realize, a good time; maybe even a meaningful time. But none of this is really reportable. It doesn’t make a good narrative. If someone asks you about your break, you might find you have nothing to report, or that you report something that really didn’t much matter to you one way or another but happens to make a better story than the events that did matter you (I sometimes suspect that’s why people go to the famous tourist spots: to have something they can report to others). The events and activities that make your life worthwhile may not be the ones that make the best stories.

This is a problem not only when we report to others, but also when we report to ourselves. When I look back on my year, the really important things – the quiet moments of reflection, say – may not stand out for me. Standing out in my memory and mattering may not track each other very well at all. The many small events that actually constitute our lives – shared jokes with a loved one; a beautiful sunset; a nice dinner – and which give them their texture and their value may be repeated many times, and hard to distinguish one from another. They may not be captured by the narrative net, and what we recall and recount may be both unrepresentative and relatively trivial.

The danger of reflection, then, is that we may find ourselves imposing a shape on our lives that misshape them. Because the story we tell gets its value from events that are relatively rare, we may think it is going badly when it isn’t, or that it needs reshaping in ways that would actually detract from what it makes it valuable to us. The memorable and the quantifiable (academics like me might count publications and grant money, not teaching or intellectual satisfaction) might crowd out the genuinely valuable, and that may have effects for how we attempt to live in the coming year.

Of course, reflection may have benefits too. I haven’t argued that the costs are greater than the benefits (I would need to be able quantify each, which I can’t do). Nor have I suggested that the costs are inevitable. Perhaps there are ways of reflecting, or balancing reflection with other kinds of activities, that minimize these costs. But we shouldn’t neglect the costs that reflection can impose. Perhaps we risk becoming Mill’s pigs by failing to reflect, but it is not obviously better to be a shallow experience seeker. Perhaps we need to reflect, but not too much.

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3 Responses to New Year’s Reflection

  • John Brett says:

    Is this correct “The examined life is not worth living,”? Should it be “unexamined”?

    • Neil Levy says:

      Possibly a Freudian slip? Fixed now.

      • Keith Tayler says:

        Should it not be, ‘the self-unexamined life is not worth living?’ In an age where we are increasingly surveilled and examined by the state, corporations and machines, we should perhaps make it clear who or what should be doing the examining to make life worth living. I fear it may be too late, there being a growing acceptance that we will be surveilled and examined by “others” to an inch of our lives and there is nothing we can or, more worryingly, should do about it. Indeed, we are already so far down this previously trodden road, there are some who state that “algorithms”, the new omnipresent omnipotence, will know us better than we can know ourselves. We have been here before, but this time there is ‘magical’ technology and lots of money to keep everyone on side.