According to Plato, Socrates said, at his trial for impiety and corrupting youth, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
I have examined my life. I do it all the time. However, it’s not a text-book example of an examination. To me, that sounds rather scientific. An examination. Ooooh… serious! An inspection. An investigation! An analysis of one’s life.
Mine is more like a perpetual question of What the bleep am I doing?! Well, to be honest, sometimes the question varies. Why do I keep doing this to myself?! How to I keep finding myself here?! They basically all have the same root, and I’m not sure that’s what Socrates had in mind when he referred to the unexamined life. But I do relentlessly question…
I heard someone say once that “God doesn’t want you to change the World. He gives you the World so you can change yourself…”
That actually makes some sense to me. True, there are those whose lives have made a tremendous impact on the entire world; Abraham Lincoln, Jonas Salk, Marie Currie, Stanislav Petrov, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison to name just a few. There are also countless others who dedicated their lives to service or sacrificed their lives so that others may have better ones.
But I’m not an inventor or a scientist or a medical researcher or a soldier or anything close. I mean, what does a goofball have to offer to the world? But, going on the aforementioned comment that God wants me to change myself, I’m assuming that means He is offering me the chance to better myself; to improve myself; to Be a better version of myself.
So, since I’m not in a position to impact the entire world, I ponder whether I have I made a difference to others around me; my family, friends and strangers I pass on the street. That’s something within the purview of a goofball. I could be nice to others.
If I examine my life, the first thing I do is recall the countless times I’ve screwed up, the myriad times I’ve embarrassed myself, the innumerable times I’ve said something insensitive or been, in other ways, cruel. But I am beginning to realize that it’s my ego—you can call it my personality, that part of me that makes me, me, but also wants to keep me separate from God and my fellow Humans—that immediately sends me down that path of self-loathing.
But, if I can look past those thoughts, I can find some times in my life where I was able to be kind to or otherwise help another. I did have a production company for many years and I produced TV programs about non-profit organizations. My hope is that I was able to somehow help and/or enrich the lives of people I would never meet.
But I did earn a living doing that. So I was curious as to if I’ve ever helped another without any reward or remuneration for myself. Well, once in my radio days, many decades ago, I was able to offer encouragement to young man which helped him to launch a career of which he’d dreamt. OK. Maybe that was helping another.
One time I received a letter from a man with whom I had worked many years before. I’d lost track of him and his letter to me said he’d gotten a job as the General Manager of a small-market TV station. The letter was incredibly complimentary to me, telling me that he frequently remembered his days as one of my staff; when we had a blast working together. At one point, he said something like, “…I often ask myself what Bill would do in this situation…” I was more than surprised that I’d made an impact on this man. The letter was very humbling and I was grateful to have been able to help, albeit without conscious intention.
In my book, Ketchup on the Badge, More Real Life Adventures of a Volunteer Police Officer, I continually wonder whether anything I ever did while a police officer ever mattered to the life of another. I wasn’t paid for my time and my intention was to perform my duties in order to have the opportunity to help others. But I’m not sure I could ever answer my own question to my satisfaction.
About a decade ago, on one of my fly-fishing trips to Montana, I met a boy of about 10- or 11-years-old who was camping and fishing with his father and uncle. Somehow I found myself in the middle of the camp grounds talking with this friendly boy. He was telling me that he wasn’t too good at fishing, but he was trying. The men were friendly to me, but comments to the boy were nothing more than barked orders. I got the impression that his father and uncle were just tolerating the boy’s inclusion in their trip and were more concerned with drinking and their own fishing. They were boisterous and jolly when they stopped to say hello to me, but when they turned to the boy to say something, their faces turned to practically monstrous scowls. It was such a stark change that I still recall the encounter these many years later.
There had been an early hatch of grasshoppers that year and I’d learned a few patterns so, once the men had gone about busying themselves for their next sojourn on the river, I opened one of my fly boxes and surreptitiously handed the boy some grasshoppers that I’d tied.
“Oh, sir. I can’t take your flies.”
“You take these. I tied them and have plenty.”
It was either the next year or the one following. The boy came up to me and asked if I remembered him. At my furrowed brow, he refreshed my memory about giving him the hoppers.
“Oh, Yes! I remember now! How was the fishing?”
He lowered his head, a bit sheepishly, and then looked up. With a smile he said, “I caught a lot of fish. More than my dad and uncle.”
I laughed openly. “I’ll tell you what,” I said. I again opened a fly box and said, “This is called a Sparkle Dun. I learned it this year. Take these and use them up on the bend in the river.”
“That’s where we’re going this evening!” His face was alight.
I winked at him and he scurried off, again calling a thank you to me in his wake. The following day he saw me along the river. “How’d it go?” I asked.
He could hardly contain himself. “I was the only one that caught anything and I caught six!” His expression dropped a little and he continued, “My Dad and uncle made me give them the rest of the flies…”
I opened my box and quickly picked out five more. “Here. Take these,” I said.
“Sir, I can’t.”
“Please,” I said. “Enjoy yourself.”
“Thank you, sir!” he said.
I’ve never seen him again but, once in a while, I think of that boy and hope that my friendliness was a good contrast to his father’s harsh treatment of him. I sure feel like those few, brief encounters made my life better.
It’s become a cliché to say that helping others helps ourselves but, each time I’ve managed to overcome my self-involved recto-cranial inversion for a moment and become aware of and help another, it has, by far, been the best feeling in my life. It literally feels like my body is, in some fashion, electrified. It feels good! Helping others feels good.
One day my daughter told me that she came into the room where her (grade-school-aged) daughter sat, attempting to take a picture of her arm.
Do this for me. Bend your arm up so that your hand is by your shoulder. Now raise your elbow outward a bit from your body. Do you see the crease in the crook of your arm where your forearm meets your bicep? My granddaughter was attempting to take a close up picture of that. My daughter said her immediate suspicions were confirmed by her daughter. She was taking a close-up picture of that crease and was going to send it to a friend to make the friend think it was her… ummm… backside.
My daughter immediately shot her a fiery question, “Which one of your disgusting little friends taught you that?!!”
With a smile, my granddaughter chirped, “Poppie showed me!”
And I had.
I’m sure it’s needless to say that my daughter might agree that my life needs additional examination.