The Examined Life

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Since my wife died, I’ve read quite a lot about grief. I don’t know what I expected to learn; perhaps how to get through it and get on with my life. But I learned, instead, that grief is not something that a person gets through; it’s something a person endures for the rest of his life. Of course I should have known that. I’ve experienced grief before, most intensely following the deaths, quite some time apart, of my father, my mother, and my sister. That grief is still with me, but I have managed to accept it and allow it to change me in the way grief always will. But the grief on the loss of my wife has been stunning in its intensity. Though it is not as awfully painful and constantly present as it was three months ago, it still feels fresh and raw—not all the time, but still quite frequently. I think writing about it helps me examine my grief as analytically as I can, but I still feel almost overwhelmed by it from time to time. And as normal as I know it is to cry, when I’m around other people during one of those raw episodes, I still try to hold it in. I just can’t seem to overcome the effects of testosterone poisoning; the sense that men should be able to control and mask their painful emotions, especially around others. I hate that socially-manufactured bullshit, but I still let it influence me in ways that make me angry at myself. Sometimes I think I’m over it; but when I find myself struggling to maintain my composure instead of opening the spigot and releasing my emotions, I realize I’m not. I still let the prevalent concept of masculinity rule me. No matter what I tell myself about how I’m going to overcome that mistaken belief, I usually fail trying. Grief never disappears. It gets easier to deal with (as hard as it feels even now, it has gotten easier for me), but it is never erased. It changes the griever in many ways I don’t yet quite understand; I know it’s changing me.


I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this to anyone before. In connection with grief, though more directly correlated with overwhelming depression, there have been a very few times in my life that I’ve seriously contemplated suicide; to the extent that I considered how I might do it. When those thoughts have taken hold, they scared me to think I could ever make such an irrevocable decision. But I know it’s a possibility. And that, too, scares me. That I could act, in depression, in a way that cannot be undone. That I could act, in pain, in a way that cannot be reversed. It’s not that I’m afraid of dying; it’s that I recognize the inconsolable trauma it would inflict on the people left behind to grieve for me.  There’s such a stigma associated with suicidal thoughts; the person is automatically considered unstable, deranged, or otherwise out of their minds. I do not think that’s the case, though. In my opinion, some circumstances or problems can seem so overwhelming to a person that the intense emotional pain the situations cause triggers desperate, if irrational, thoughts about how to make the pain stop. And the stigma associated with the very idea of suicide prevents people from seeking help, even from anonymous trained volunteers. The idea of telling friends or family about suicidal thoughts—people who might forever view one in a different and unfavorable light—may be as painful as the circumstances that trigger the thoughts. It is common to think that attempted suicides are cries for help. I question whether that is true. I wonder whether, instead, they are simply failed attempts that might (or might not) so fundamentally shock the suicidal person that he or she finally does seek help. There is enough pain in the world without adding to it with suicide. But I think I understand how utterly overwhelming life can seem. I wonder whether suicide is, in its simplest form, a response to stresses created in our minds by the way society teaches us to think? Albert Camus said it, I think: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” I’m just full of cheery thoughts on this Monday morning.


Larry McMurtry wrote several books that I would list among my favorites if I had a favorites list. Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, Leaving Cheyenne, All My Friends are Going to be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment would be among them. But, like most books I read, six weeks after reading them I couldn’t begin to tell you the plots of any of them. But I know I truly enjoyed reading them. I was sufficiently enthralled by McMurtry to have made it a point to go to Archer City where several buildings housed his bookstores (at least they did at one time and may still). My memory tells me they were closed, though; we may have gone on a weekend.  McMurtry’s death is not a tragedy; he died an old man. But in my view his recent death marks the loss of a literary giant.


Speaking of books, I just received a copy of a book I ordered, A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. I’ve only opened the cover and skimmed a few page thus far, but from what I’ve heard and read about the book, it is spellbinding. I will read it rather slowly, as my eyeglasses prescription does not seem well-suited to reading books. But read it I will. Speaking of that, I must return to reading The Cellist of Sarajevo; I somehow let that book sit too long on the shelf after borrowing it from the library, so I took it back before finishing it. It mesmerized me. I’ve thought about getting audio books, but that’s as far as it’s gotten; thinking about it. I’d love to get an audio CD and take it on a very long road trip with me. That might be an ideal way to get better acquainted with audio books.


I think the quote from Socrates, with which I began this post, gets to the heart of why I write. At least why I write in this blog. I feel compelled to examine my life, to try to understand why I am the way I am. Examining one’s life, though, tends to lead to more questions than answers; a never-ending education that reveals an ever-growing body of ignorance that would not have been uncovered without examination.


I’ve recently been watching a Netflix series called Paranoid. Last night, I watched episode seven and it left me wanting to stay awake and watch the last one (it’s a one-season series with eight episodes). But I didn’t. It’s another crime drama, but not “just” another one. I find it fascinating. It helps that most of the actors have British accents, with a sprinkling of German and American accents thrown in for interest and intrigue. One of the reasons I like Netflix series is that they last about 45 minutes per episode, with no commercials. American television series typically are 30 minutes or an hour in length, with something in the neighborhood of eight to fifteen minutes of commercials included. Maddening!


This is the week for my second COVID-19 vaccination. And the week (and today’s the day) for delivery of my new dryer. And the week during which I’ll cook another leg of lamb. Which makes me think I should plan on using some of the leftovers (and there will be lots of leftovers, given that the leg is about five and a quarter pounds) to make shepherd’s pie. Shepherd’s pie uses ground (or chopped) lamb; cottage pie uses ground (or chopped) beef. I much prefer shepherd’s pie.


With old age comes both wisdom and, occasionally, remarkably bad judgment—the latter stunning in its stupidity. That kind of poor judgment paints a person as an absolute fool. I’ve seen it. In the mirror.

I got a call as I arrived home from an outing yesterday, reminding me that my new dryer is to be delivered today. I paid for installation of the new dryer as well as removal of the dead machine. For reasons only a fool would understand (but still doesn’t), I decided I would do part of the work for the delivery team, so I managed to slide the dryer away from the wall and disconnect the electric plug and the vent. It was a piece of cake; nothing to it. Inasmuch as it was so damn easy, I decided I’d just move the dryer through the door in the laundry room into the garage. It was not as easy as the first part because I had to lift it instead of rocking it along the floor, but I did it. While doing it, I also managed to pull some muscles in my back and in my neck. The resulting pain in my back and neck, coupled with the ferocious headache that I suspect can be traced to my bad judgment/stupidity, reminds me rather sharply that I should not have done it. I paid for someone else to do it. A young buckaroo or two who are stronger and more experienced than I. What was I thinking?! When I was young and pulled a stunt like that, my oldest sister recognized my stupidity by saying, “Why don’t you go play in the traffic?” I think the point was to tell me she thought I was dumb enough to do it.


I think I’ve done quite enough examination for this day of my life.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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1 Response to The Examined Life

  1. davidlegan says:

    MANual labor is not for men. It’s for boys.

Please talk to me about what I've written. I get lonely when I'm the only one saying anything.

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