On the Highway to Hell: The unexamined life...

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

On the Highway to Hell: The unexamined life…

The rock band AC/DC in their well-known lyrics sing:

“Living easy, living free

Season ticket on a one-way ride

Asking nothing, leave me be

Taking everything in my stride

Don’t need reason, don’t need rhyme

Ain’t nothing I would rather do

Going down, party time

My friends are gonna be there too

I’m on the highway to hell…”

In many ways, these lyrics describe our culture of “group-think” and our manic approach to life: in a hurry, long lists of things to do, and little time for reflection, contemplation or solitude. The ancient philosopher Socrates stated, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” You might also flip that to say, “An unlived life is not worth examining.”  What do these statements mean? What does it mean to have a meaningful life, worth examining? For many, the busyness of life, the denial of mortality, and the desire to not miss out, leads ultimately to a dull feeling of emptiness - a life that is on the “highway to hell”, blocking us from being our authentic selves.

We have so many examples of the power of culture and of groups and activities that overpower us, to the point that we lose too much of ourselves. Even the existentialist philosopher Heidegger, while initially a very profound and deep thinker, eventually joined the Nazi party and became swept up the the group-think of his day. In contrast, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard talked about the need for the solitary individual to rise above the crowds, be apart from “group think” and hear the voice of God. He stated, “The crowd is untruth!” His words have never been more relevant: yet, as we all know, living that out is complicated.

Spirituality, deep relational connectedness, and becoming an authentic self require us to get off the “Highway to Hell” and slow down and find deep grounding. True confession: I like AC/DC.  Their music has energy and is wonderful to workout to.  In the midst of a depleted workout, their music creates energy bursts, and helps override tiredness. On a long run, when I’m running on empty, a little AC/DC can do the trick.  But then isn’t that part of the problem? We prefer manic energy, business, accomplishing goals, making purchases, constantly checking facebook because it makes us feel like our lives are exciting. We would prefer not to feel the depletion of meaning, and the nagging existential anxiety that is always in the background. Ernest Becker’s  Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death suggests that in the end much of our manic energy, the desire to accomplish, make purchases, is an attempt to deny mortality. Fredrick Backman, in his novel A Man Called Ove, states, “Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it doesn’t exist…..some of us, in time, become so conscious of it, that we live harder…..”

And yet, without slowing down, facing solitude and even mortality, we remain on the “highway to hell.” Even our relationships suffer when we cannot deal with solitude. We are not capable of intimacy, of deep conversation, and often expect our spouse to fill up the emptiness. Distracting ourselves through Facebook, trivial pursuits, business, only serves to keep us on the surface, rendering intimacy difficult.

The advice of the ancient Psalmist (Psalm 46 in the Bible) is both profound, and complicated: “Be Still”. Only by slowing down and becoming still can we live life creatively and find meaning - perhaps it also allows us to truly find intimacy with those we love.