The Examined Life

If the unexamined life is not worth living then Stephen Grosz’s “The Examined Life” might imply a template.

Grosz is a psychiatrist whose book received acclaim and awards. He presents case study / fables with a coda worthy of a fable. That is, they are neat rather than nuanced. The stories themselves are gnomic and remind me of John Cage’s one paragraph journal entries about the  circumstances of living; except Cage was writing about the randomness of events with an irony that was entertaining and amusing, pointing out the amazing quality of human experience and consciousness.

Grosz doesn’t offer analysis nor insight – other  than the codas – nor any depth. These are just stories taken from people’s lives; people who trusted him, now with their stories in the public  domain. Grosz no doubt checked with them first, at least I hope so, but still, it seems an exploitation to me, even if pseudonyms are used. Their brevity might suggest to Grosz the Checkhov he admires, but they have none of the resonance of true art.

I like books whose center is analysis and psychology so I looked forward to the journey. This book doesn’t satisfy in that sense, but Grosz’s general attitude warrants credit. Grosz feels people have stories that are untold – the stories of their lives. From fear or confusion or doubt they don’t piece together their own narrative, for many reasons – overdetermined, as analysis would have it – people don’t embrace or know who they are. Know thyself is the truth expressed – an old truth.

Grosz’s template is that he helps people in constructing their personal story. There were books written in the hippy days like that. “Telling Your Story,” was one excellent example. What Grosz says earlier in the book is probably more pertinent: he says that when he first meets a patient he tries to fully attend to them – so they leave feeling that they have been heard. That’s the crux, isn’t it. The most therapeutic thing, the most moral and decent thing we can do for each other – fully pay attention. I-Thou, not I-It, as Martin Buber would say.

That is the truth about therapy or confession or any human interaction that is beneveloent; the interlocutor feels they have been seen. not condescended to, nor even praised, but simply that their slim existence in the long narrative of our planet, was heard, if only for a brief moment, by a single individual.