There are two ends of the spectrum I’ve encountered when it comes to a life of reading books. One comes from the pithy saying, “the one who does not read only lives one life, while the one who reads lives a thousand lives.” The other end of the spectrum is revealed by the childhood of a friend of mine. She and her sister were not allowed to read books—their father thought that once you were done, you didn’t have anything to show for it. I’m sure there are points along the spectrum in between these attitudes; I just used them to show the wide divergence of possibility. Personally, I’m a big fan of reading. When I’m not forced to read for educational purposes, I tend to plow through fiction at a pretty good rate. However, I never want the lives and adventures of fictional characters to serve as a substitute for living my own adventures. It’s an unsatisfying life if someone else has all the fun.
I bring this up for a specific reason. There’s an old saying attributed to Socrates: the unexamined life is not worth living. What he means is that without taking time to reflect on the big (and little) questions of life, there’s not much life to be found. You can see how there’s an interplay between these two things. If we go about our day merely as routine, if we don’t look for meaning or purpose in what we do, if we don’t consider questions of ultimate importance, if we don’t look towards a future goal that we want for ourselves—then there’s not a whole lot of purpose in the Groundhog Day reality of “same stuff, different day.” On the other hand, self-examination can lead to its own problems. Counselors and therapists know all too well the condition of “analysis paralysis,” where a patient gets so wrapped up in figuring out their problems that they never actually do anything about them. I’m guessing nobody wants that either.
The polar positions I’ve described can be applied to our spiritual lives as well. The Scriptures show tremendous value in meditation and contemplation. Just read a passage like Psalm 119 where the author has spent a lot of time lining up an alphabetical poem with eight verses each beginning with the same letter of the alphabet from beginning to the end—topically focused on how important it is to meditate on God’s word. Contemplation is good. But, there is a down side if contemplation is the bulk of your spiritual practice. For while a passage like Psalm 119 lauds the values of meditation on what God has said—it also focuses on what the results of that meditation should be.
Psalm 119:9 asks and answers its own question: How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
Meditation, contemplation, and examination have a goal—a different sort of living. If you are one who is prone to being an introvert, my guess is you find a high value in contemplation and examination. You probably get a lot of your adventure needs met through books, too. That’s okay. If you’re an extrovert, you may not have time for books, contemplation, or examination. That’s okay, too. My real hope for people at both ends of the spectrum is that they begin to find value for other experiences. Life without examination is not worth living. But examination without livelihood is also detrimental.