“To be aware is to be willing to suffer.” (I’ve seen this sentence attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, but I can’t really vouch for that).
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Once more, I’m not vouching, but this is attributed to Socrates, another philosopher from a similar location and time in history).
I was educated in America. The ancient Greek culture’s arts and sciences were always presented as a high point of Western civilization. The ‘roots’ of our society, so we were told, were to be found in Athens. There was a great deal of respect, credit and admiration given to the Ancient Greek civilization by textbooks and teachers. The warring, conquering, pillaging, raping, enslaving aspects of their empire’s expansion (the soldiers, politicians and businessmen) aside, apparently there was a segment of the ‘at home’ population that had the time and inclination to ruminate and dedicate their energies to exploring and explaining things. Lots of things like math, the stars, why things float and what constitutes a ‘good’ life.
I might be mistaken, but the people (exclusively male, by the way, that’s how it was taught to us) who were engaged in these dialogues and discoveries may have been some of the one percenters of their day, those who were privileged enough by birth line or circumstance to be unhampered by the menial tasks of survival. Regardless, history has chosen to overlook their indiscretions and atrocities in order to focus exclusively on their achievements.
That’s some seriously good public relations work over time, if you ask me.
My point is this; underneath many of the cultural values that we inherited directly and indirectly are some outdated notions and mistaken premises.
An unexamined life is not worthless. It’s less fulfilling sometimes. It’s prone to painfully repetitious missteps or mind numbing, boring routines, but that doesn’t make it a worthless life. If it’s the best that someone knows how to do, if it’s what they’ve been taught and only what they know how to do, so be it. Every life is still valuable and worthwhile. Socrates was being an arrogant elitist, an intellectual snob. That’s if he actually said anything like this at all.
Associating awareness with suffering is misleading. Certainly one element of being ‘aware’ is the willingness to feel and, yes, some of the feelings we open ourselves to are difficult and even painful. But our awareness also opens us to beauty, joy and love. When we are awake, aware and alive the full Monte of human emotions is available to us. Not just suffering.
But many of us have grown up with the assumption that human beings naturally are supposed to seek pleasure and avoid pain…pleasure = good…pain = bad. As a result, many of us habitually turn a blind eye towards the unpleasant or the painful as if that would somehow make it go away. We avoid, deny and pretend…all of which create a whole new realm of suffering.
I realize that tracing the roots of some of our misconceptions and cultural neurosis back through the ages doesn’t change a thing.
But it might help a little to recognize that we didn’t start this mess.