The Unexamined Life

A friend once told me that whenever you look in the mirror, you automatically deduct ten pounds. I believe her. I think we add hair too. I watched a video of myself a couple of years ago and wondered why the camera lighting made me look so bald on the top of my head. When I went to the bathroom mirror to check it out, it didn’t look nearly that bad to me. I found that if I tilted my head the right way, I couldn’t even see the top of my head. So I decided that the real problem was the camera angle. A great philosopher, Plato I think, observed that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. But I’m not sure I agree with him. He said it just before they killed him.

When I was a pastor, there was a woman in my church who was very critical of me. Looking back on it, I don’t think her criticisms were really personal. She was just critical in general. But I was young and insecure, so I took it hard. I tended to avoid going to her house to visit. Of course, one of her chief criticisms of my ministry was that I didn’t visit enough. After a while, I felt guilty about it. So I stopped by for a pastoral call. When she complained that I didn’t do enough pastoral visitation, I sort of lost it.

“You know, every time I come to your house, you get out your list of all the things I’m not doing right,” I said. “Well, I won’t always be your pastor. Maybe your next pastor will do better.” She stared at me in wide-eyed astonishment for a second. Then she began to cry. “Are you saying that I’m too critical?” she asked. “I’ve never thought of myself as critical.” I felt terrible that I had made her cry.

I’ve thought of that conversation many times since. Not so much as an example of how not to do pastoral care, although I suppose it is that as well. But as a cautionary tale about what it means to lack self-awareness. I have seen it many times since. Bad leaders who thought they were good. Dull preachers who thought they were interesting. Ordinary looking people who thought they were attractive. Proud people who thought they were humble. Somehow, they all have the capacity to reconstruct what they have seen in the mirror of personal experience into a better image. They see themselves in a way that nobody else does. Meanwhile, they are oblivious to what seems plain to the rest of us.

Maybe Plato was right. Perhaps the unexamined life really isn’t worth living. Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I can’t help but ask what others see in me that I cannot see myself. The answer that comes back is always the same. You don’t really want to know. You probably wouldn’t believe it anyway.