This quote from Socrates is the motto of Cal Poly’s English Department. (I’m pretty sure it’s the only department in the university with its own motto.)
If I’m being honest, for most of the five-ish years I spent in school, I didn’t really follow this that much. I was either pretty happy, or at least content, and was scared looking deeper would cause said happiness to crumble, or I was not in a good place and examining the ins and outs of that would have been painful and uncomfortable and hard.
In the fall quarter of my fifth year, I took a seminar course in Existential Literature. On the first day, possibly before even going over the syllabus in detail, the professor — one of my favorites — told us bluntly, “This course will change you. And if it doesn’t, you’re not doing it right.”
He was right. Existential literature really is a trip — we read Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Nietzsche (who enraged me like few other writers have), Sartre, Beckett, and probably some others I’m forgetting. You read some of it and it literally feels like you’re standing on a precipice, and you can either jump off and go spiraling down into this mess of “what’s real? what’s reality? am I really here? what’s the point? why should I get up tomorrow? who would care? why would anyone care?” and on and on, or you can just run back to the real, firm world you know with rules and causes and effects and reason and logic.
I hate to draw the obvious comparison, but it can be — or at least feel — like choosing between the red and blue pills.
When I took that class, I was feeling pretty good. So I just dipped my toe in to the “life-changing” part of the course. I looked over the edge of the precipice a bit, but didn’t jump. I didn’t want to look at my pretty good life too closely and screw it up.
Just a few months into dating my boyfriend and doing the long-distance thing, I didn’t want to look at rough patches too closely because I was scared I’d end up thinking we should break up. I didn’t want to examine relationships with new or old friends because the shy loner I was in middle school was just relieved to have people to go to the bars with and didn’t want to lose that. My academic and career tracks were so haywire at that time I was just holding on and trying to have faith it would all sort out in the next year or so.
And now, I look back and wonder if I’d been braver, if I’d dived in deep, how would my life be different now?
I have to think certain aspects of it would be better.
Not examining my life more closely, being more reactionary than proactive, especially when things started feeling out of control, led to several years of feeling lost and adrift. Of trying to convince myself I could be fulfilled as a marketer. Of not having clear goals and taking action on them. Of half-heartedly trying new habits or making changes without being really sure about anything.
Six or seven years later, I think I’m finally ready to look at my life more closely. I’ve done it in flashes here and there and, obviously, survived. It’s still hard and scary, but I think I’m willing to go through it now because I’ve somehow got more faith in the “foundations” of my life and who I am. I’m now more certain that things I need the most — my marriage, my family — will stand up to such examination. And I’m more okay with the idea of letting go of or making changes to the things that don’t.
photo via snapwire snaps // cc // modified in photoshop