Monday, June 22, 2009

The Examined Life: Not So Great Either

There was cute post on one of the Times blogs last week in which a guy -- a food writer -- reflects on marathon running. And there's a great moment in his recounting of past marathons where he describes getting to the middle of some race, and thinking to himself, "Why am I doing this?" As he says, it's a question you should never ask yourself while running a marathon. After he thinks of it, he simply gives up, quits the race, and goes to the park.

This story really resonated with me, because that's a feeling I have a lot. I always think it would be cool to be really into some sports team, or have an interesting hobby, or get all into crafts. I'd love to know all about current opera singers, or exotic mushrooms; I'd love to be able to whip up some really great pasta sauce, or grow fresh vegetables in a garden, or ride a horse. But the truth is, about one minute into most of those activities, I'm already thinking, "Why am I doing this?" And that's it, game over.

I'm sure you've heard that idea, attributed to Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. I suppose there's a sense in which, as a person who both philosophizes and teaches other people to do so, I'm professionally committed to a certain amount of faith in this idea.

But the truth is I regard philosophical reflection with a certain amount of ambivalence and wariness. While of course it would be stupid to live without ever thinking about how you live, it's also undeniable, as the marathon story suggests, sometimes the Why question isn't the question to ask.

Some of the great things in life are just impossible to engage in without a heavy dose of real unthinkingness. Would you ever make a lego illustrated story of the bible, or learn Esperanto, or make a super gigantic astronomical complex, if you were closely focused on the question of "Why am I doing this?" I know I wouldn't.

Eventually the marathon guy's daughter says she wants to run a marathon, too, and when he asks her, "Why a marathon?" she says, "It seems like the right thing to do now," which he says is "as good an answer as any."

I envy her this answer, just as I envy most people who have manias for things like marathon running, or amateur astronomy, or whatever. But instead of nursing a grudge, I'm going to take a page from this woman's playbook. Now I've got the words, if not the music, and I'm going to practice. Next time I find myself thinking, "Why am I doing this?" I'm going to tell myself, "It seems like the right thing to do now. . . So stop bothering me with all these pointless questions, and let me get back to my Puttanesca sauce!

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