As we approach the end of 2015 and the beginning of the New Year, many of us in American culture will begin to reflect, even if briefly, on our lives and loved ones in the past year. For some, that will mean reliving warm and cherished moments, and for others, feeling anew grief and pain. In either case, there can be no doubt that American culture, as distracted and unfocused as it often is, encourages a kind of serious introspection this time of year.
Self-reflection is a good thing. It’s a habit that can produce the kind of humility, modesty, and moral awareness that characterize the people we tend to admire. It’s a practice rooted in a biblical command to examine ourselves, to take heed of our spiritual condition so as to not be deceived, either by sin or by each other. Done in the right spirit, introspection can remind us of our need for a Savior, and renew a genuine thankfulness and desire for Christ.
As is true of all things, however, self-reflection can be corrupted. If the unexamined life is not worth living, the hyper-examined life isn’t either.
The hyper-examined life is what happens when a legitimate desire to be self-aware becomes an unhealthy preoccupation with our own emotional lives. Hyper-introspection can make us watch our thoughts and feelings with an obsessive hawkishness, making us perpetually unable to enjoy moments of self-forgetfulness. This can be particularly debilitating in relationships, when every relationship and encounter is constantly subjected to inward scrutiny.
At first, it may sound like the hyper-examined life is really a personality bug, a flaw in some introverted temperaments that really only affects a few people. But a quick look at social media, the dominant interpersonal medium of our generation, reveals quite a bit about how unaware we can be that we are living a hyper-examined life.
Because social media is essentially a faceless, competitive marketplace for digital personas, it tends to encourage habits of thought and feeling that tend toward a hyper-examined life. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all have their respective “reward” systems for participation: Likes, Retweets, etc. The key to getting the most out of these mediums is to constantly orient your own personality toward whatever is popular (or controversial) at a given moment, and post accordingly. This habit can easily spill over into offline life; for example, choosing a book whose picture will get plenty of attention on Instagram, or posting clever zingers on Twitter and being unable to remember anything substantial about what you watched.
The effect here is that we fail to cultivate genuine moments of life that don’t have to rebound back to us in the form of digital approval. And that, in turn, can affect how we live offline too. Many writers and teachers have observed that my generation struggles with decision-making. Millennials often seem paralyzed by fear of failure, desiring complete assurance that the next step will be easy and rewarding. Thus, many young people unwittingly hurt their chances of lasting marriages, stable careers, and fruitful relationships by trying to constantly make the “right” decision, when simply making a decision would, in fact, be the right move.
An obsessive preoccupation with what others will think and a paralyzing fear of failure go hand in hand, and both are symptoms of a hyper-examined life. Many who are living a hyper-examined will flit and float from job to job, from friend to friend, from place to place. This may seem adventurous at first but often what is behind this rootlessness is a compulsive need for satisfaction in every season of life. Instead of losing themselves in the joys of the mundane, the regular, and the everyday, these wandering souls constantly search their own emotional state for happiness, not realizing that this kind of preoccupation with self is exactly what tends to kill happiness in the first place.
The hyper-examined life is exhausting. Life, including the Christian life, isn’t meant to be lived by way of non-stop self-appraising and people pleasing. A day in, day out regiment of the hyper-examined life leads inevitably to burnout, frustration, and a nagging sense of unfulfilled desire not based in reality.
By contrast, the well-examined life is not driven by fear or compulsive self-searching but by a humble desire for grace. Personal failures are not meant to be endlessly agonized over but repented of, with the confidence in God’s provision for forgiveness and transformation (2 Cor. 7:10). Confidence in the mercies of God disarms paralyzing fear, if we live life knowing that poorly made or even sinful decisions do not exist outside the scope of God’s plans and promises for us (Rom. 8:38-39).
Instead of meandering from one thing to the next in search of the emotional fulfillment that always feels out of reach, living the well-examined life frees us to drop self-preoccupation and learn the virtues of gratitude and contentment. The reality is that, many times, the most spiritual thing we can do is stop trying to think such spiritual thoughts and simply stop thinking about ourselves at all.
As you near the New Year, be encouraged to reflect well on 2015, to look for evidences of God’s grace in your life and take stock of how you can trust Christ more in thought, word, and deed. Then close your journal and go outside (and take no pictures!), or call an old friend, or take a coworker out for lunch. Don’t be afraid of the awkward moment or the failed attempt. Live life confident in the heavenly Father who spared nothing from you, not even his own Son. Think on that, and look at yourself through your Father’s eyes.