Socrates is famous for saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But how many of us take time to really examine our lives? We might pause for a moment before making new year’s resolutions, but in the day-to-day, most of us end up hurrying from one place to another without making a lot of room for silence.
You may think: even if I did have time for silence, I wouldn’t want to spend it constantly thinking about myself. Self-reflection may seem like an unhealthy egoistic obsession, a kind of navel-gazing that makes us worse people, not better.
The thing is, that’s not true self-reflection: that’s rumination.
Self-reflection is freeing; rumination is crushing. When we spend time truly examining our lives, we come away with gratitude, peace, or possibly even discomfort that acts as a positive motivation for change.
Rumination, on the other hand, is “the tendency to keep rethinking past or future events, while attaching negative emotion to those thoughts.” When we ruminate, we cover the same ground, over and over, in a negative cycle.
Rumination pulls us further inward. Self-reflection actually helps us move outward.
The word reflection means to “give back,” or “show an image of”. We see a reflection of ourselves in the mirror when it gives back our own image. When we enter into a space of self-reflection, we have to hold something up, in our minds, to help us see ourselves more clearly.
Maybe we reflect on personality traits, and where along the continuum we fall, so that we can know ourselves better, and act accordingly. Maybe we reflect on the notion of significance, and where ours is coming from. Maybe we just spend a moment considering the world around us and how we can receive the goodness that it offers.
When we take time for self-examination, the key is to enter into a space of self-reflection rather than rumination.
Still not sure what that looks like? Here are three areas to focus on, with some guiding questions.
Goodness: What good have I done/ am I doing in the world around me? in the lives of others that I have touched? What goodness have I witnessed? How has it affected me?
Truth: What truth have I spoken? What truths have I affirmed by my actions and way of life? What truth have I read or heard? How has it affected me?
Beauty: What beauty do I bring to the world? Is my notion of beauty a true one? or a false one dictated by limited cultural norms? What beauty have I seen? Do I look for beauty in others? Do I appreciate it in them? In what they create? How do I respond to true beauty?
If you find yourself in a place constant hustle, taking time to examine life might feel a little overwhelming. Just keeping up with the menial tasks and daily demands may be more than you feel able to handle.
But reflection on our lives can enliven our hopes and give us new perspective. If we take time to climb out from under the weight of modern busy-ness – however briefly – we might find that our souls can finally take a breath.