The Unexamined Navel
Posted by PintofStout on December 1, 2007
Picture it! A still life of a belly button nestled cozily in a belly – tone but soft – perhaps with a quaint jewel or ring of gold piercing it. Oh, the feelings of warmth brought by beauty and the longing to stare or caress. Of course navel-gazing can take a turn for the worst if you end up with a cavernous crater of a belly button atop a mountainous beer –and-wing belly with damp wads of lint intermixed with the occasional hair gracing the canvas. I’ll pause here to allow the visual specter of a literal interpretation to pass before continuing on to the figurative colloquialism.
Good. If there are images of navels remaining, I hope they are soft, pleasant navels.
Navel-gazing is a term used pejoratively by activists who wish to disparage the act of not so much introspection, but in-fighting; to the activist, any energy spent in not agitating directly is energy wasted. I have tried to hash out why I thought introspection (what I’m connoting navel-gazing to be) was important for everyone, especially if they are yearning to be free. Recently, I came about the same concept from a different direction and thought that arriving at the same place from two different directions must mean I’m on to something.
I came to the concept of introspection and its importance the first time through Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom. To rehash, Fromm postulated that without a firm identity with a particular group that provided a sense of security, such as happened with one’s trade in the middle ages, the individual felt isolated and insecure resulting in varying degrees of submission to or dominance of others in order to feel like part of a group. The seeking of someone to submit to was the “escape from freedom” the title refers to. I then postulated that honest introspection can allow someone to have a firm idea of their own identity and where that identity fits into the world around them, which in turn would make them more secure and reducing the desire to submit to arbitrary authority (isn’t it all?) for the illusion of security.
This time I arrived at the importance of introspection via Socrates’ quip along the lines of “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This line of thought sprung from reading (for the second consecutive time) Charles Bowden’s Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America, which talks about how the soul of America and Americans is dying a slow death and why. Some of his reasons for this death sound much like not pushing our physical and emotional limits in order to expand; that we got soft; that we have stopped examining ourselves.* The unexamined life took the shape in my mind as living in the moment, not without fear, but not letting fear of the unknown dictate decisions. This made me think of the various people or characters that traveled for a living such as the road bands I wrote about last week, or characters who live from day to day not knowing where they’ll sleep or what they’ll eat. These people, I thought, are exploring and examining themselves without worries of security or consistency.
Next, I thought of the movie Fight Club and how the participants were pushing the limits of their strength, toughness, tolerance for pain, etc. to know that they were still alive. In this context I can imagine Socrates walking around Athens challenging anyone who’d dare to a wrestling match. I think of these aspects, which are mostly physical, first because I’ve done so little to challenge my physical self. Like I’ve stated before, I live mostly in my head. I don’t often participate in competitive sports; probably because I’m not crazy about the idea of exercise. I have never really been in a fight or gotten hit. Mostly, this is all because I’m too busy thinking or imagining or just plain vegging out to interact so intensely with someone I’m likely to tussle with.
Challenging one’s self physically or exploring the world around us is only half of the examination, though; there is also the essay portion of this test. The essay portion consists of the introspection previously talked about. This half of the self-examination involves assaying one’s actions and motivations, thoughts and reactions, convictions and goals, examining who we are and our relationship with our surroundings.
These two aspects of self-examination aren’t mutually exclusive; there is overlap. Picture a Venn diagram consisting of a circle for the physical, a circle for the mental, and an overlap of the two. This overlap, we can call it the reading comprehension portion of the test, is the interface between the physical world and our mental world. In philosophy, there are those who think that all of our physical world is simply perception, and what we see and feel doesn’t actually exist until we perceive it; they are opposed by the materialists who believe everything exists whether we perceive it or not. In each philosophy one sphere dominates the overlap, but a median position would hold that the flow of information goes both ways. Thus, it is important to reflect and be introspective because our thoughts influence the way we perceive, and we should perceive as much as possible because it, in turn, affects the way we think.
A good sense of identity built through honest introspection, looking at what is there and not seeing what is desired, provides a solid foundation for moving through life and reacting to people and situations in ways true to one’s character. Acting in harmony with one’s character is a sure path to peace. It takes physical experience to put many of these thoughts into a useful frame; if that experience is limited, the thoughts are also limited. By expanding on our experiences and pushing toward the infinite limits of possible experiences without succumbing to fear, we also stretch our thought horizons and make them a much more powerful tool in dealing with new situations.
*I’ve tried in both of my readings of this book to pull out some of the passages that have moved me the most, but it is not written for excerpts and sound bites, so I have nothing to easily quote. Consider some of this essay a very indirect paraphrase.