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The Unexamined Life

May 14, 2013

Perhaps there is something about middle age that spurs the urge to examine. At my 25th college reunion a couple of years ago, I had breakfast with a friend I hadn’t seen since graduation. She works for our alma mater, Davidson College, and therefore had attended lots of reunions. She said, “At the 10-year mark, everyone’s kind of comparing notes – who has how many kids, who has graduate degrees, what they did for vacations, etc., but by the 25th, nearly everyone has experienced some kind of life event, and they are a lot more mellow. The other stuff must not seem as important.”

It does seem that there are points in life when we question what is important, and this begins a process of examining our own attitudes and behaviors. One of my first experiences with examined behavior change was through Weight Watchers. I was 35 and about 20 pounds too heavy. I lost 15 and kept it off. Twelve years later, I fluctuate between 5 and 10 pounds over where I want to be. I still call it a successful behavior change. How did I do it? Tracking and accountability. Whenever my clothes get too tight, I go back to the WW method of writing down everything I eat. If that ever fails, I will go back to the accountability of meetings. In the meantime, I have developed much healthier dietary habits.

Lately I have been examining healthier conversational habits. For example, “listening” does not mean “wait until the other person is finished talking so I can say what I want to say.” Listening means to suspend all noise and chatter in my head and simply absorb and reflect on what I am hearing. To eliminate the noise and chatter, I have a rule: anything that I want to say while someone else is talking, I am not allowed to say. Like any other habit change, it has taken conscious effort at first, but now is becoming close to second nature. When I think of something I want to say, I tell myself to let it go, be present, and listen. If it is that important, it will come back up again in its own time. Being completely present with people, when I am able to achieve that listening nirvana, is freeing.

It is easy to underestimate how difficult behavior change can be. We rationally believe, for example, that the next time, we will just tell ourselves to act differently, and we will. We may have every intention to say no to cookies after dinner, to quit interrupting, or to quit worrying about things we cannot change. The more parts of life I examine, the more I realize I could spend the rest of my life developing new habits and undoing old ones. Behavior change is hard, but rewarding. If done in tiny increments, it takes longer, but isn’t as painful. Before we know it, changing one behavior has brought about a little more happiness. Little changes, over a decade or two between reunions, end up making a big difference.

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