The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

The Examined Life

*** NONFICTION CLAXON *** NONFICTION CLAXON *** NONFICTION CLAXON ***

Yes people!  NONFICTION.  The sort that makes me wonder why I don’t choose it more often.

The Examined Life is a book that makes you think without ever asking you to.  Not for it the heavy handed, guilt-making thought-provocation that’s so frequently found muttering darkly at you from the bookshelves (like you No Logo – I loved you, but you were shameless).  There’s no strong-arming you into dutiful reflection.  Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life gently, whimsically, summons you to think.  It brilliantly enacts in literature that notorious feature of psychoanalysts: making you think without ever giving straight advice or even answering your questions.  For that is what the book is about.  

The author has been a psychoanalyst for many years, and the book is, broadly, an account of various patients and interactions that he has had over the course of his career.  I was going to write ‘case studies’, and some are, but it’s less formal than that – more a collection of incidents, tales and thoughts.  Grosz’s anti-didactic approach puts you in some meta-therapy-couch, stirring your conscience, mind and memory with the lightest of touches.

The book technically has a format, with chapters under different sections, but the overall effect is much looser than this would suggest.  The sections passed me by completely, only noticed on second read (of which more later.)  Chapters end with conversations left hanging in a thought-provoking way. Nor are the chapters all tales from different patients: one incident is simply a conversation with a woman he sat next to on a plane, another, a trip taken with his father.  Different chapters will pique the attention of different people, or even your interest at different times.  The result is that this is a book best read a chapter at a time, and then laid aside to ponder.

Grosz brings you into his world with small side details about his practice as a psychoanalyst: “I sat in my chair, looked again at his name and address in my diary, and closed my eyes.  It’s difficult to describe my feelings in the moments just before a consultation – the mixture of anticipation, curiousty and vague unease.”  These details are mixed in with bigger issues and thoughts, offered up softly:

“The future is not some place we’re going to, but an idea in our mind now.  It is something we’re creating, that in turn creates us.  The future is a fantasy that shapes our present.”

“There is a bit of Matt in each of us.  At one time or another, we all try to silence painful emotions.   BIt when we succeed in feeling nothing we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us, and why.”

“But isn’t this attentiveness – the feeling that someone is trying to think about us – something we want more than praise?”

[Not the author’s voice but of someone he’s talking to] “I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do… I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading… I praise them when they do something really difficult – like sharing a toy or showing patience.  I also think it is important to say “thank you.” When I’m slow [in helping a child] and they have been patient, I thank them.”

Emily, the friend who recommended this book to me, recommend I read it slowly to appreciate it.  I am physically incapable of slowing down my usual scampering speed, so to compensate I read it twice, with pleasure – this is the sort of book that bears rereading.  It did make me think for about a week that absolutely everybody should be in psychoanalysis, but who’s to say we shouldn’t?

Early in the book Grosz writes, “I believe that all of us try to makes sense of our lives by telling our stories“, and perhaps this is at the heart of the book – a series of peoples’ stories that in their own quiet way each make a little bit more sense of what it means to be human. Lovely.

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