the spiritual practice of self-evaluation

I’m doing my two year review right now, which, given that this is UCLA, is due a year in advance.  So I’ve been here a little less than a year and I’m evaluating what I’ve done.  It’s a lot of work, and it’s somewhat soul-crushing remembering the goals I had and then seeing what I’ve produced since then. But I’ve gotten a decent amount of stuff out, I’ve done my share of service, I’ve taught pretty well.  There’s room for improvement in all of the metrics: research, teaching, service, and diversity, but I think I’m doing okay.

But this practice has me thinking about something the Jesuits taught me back at Creighton Prep: the daily examen. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was famously pragmatic about what his order had to do all day: do your best wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, AMDG.  Unlike the heads of other religious orders, Ignatius didn’t mind if his priests and brother missed a daily Mass or a prayer time.  Stuff comes up.  But no matter what, they had to make their examen.  It’s an examination of where God was in your life: where and when you experienced grace and where and when you didn’t.  What are you grateful for? What was hard? What were the ways you messed up? How could tomorrow be different?

I bring up the examen because a Jesuit friend once told me there’s a temptation among certain overachievers to treat the examination like an efficiency report. Jesuits and the Jesuit-trained are usually pretty ambitious people who want to pack a lot into their days (the Jesuit motto is magis, after all).  So there’s a temptation to treat the examen as an evaluation of your productivity. How did you waste time? What could you do to get more done?

That stuff matters of course. The work is important.  But it’s not actually the point; at least, it’s not the main point.  The point, for Jesuits, is to identify moments of grace and to grow towards God.  They’re not perfect about it, and politics can often get in the way, both intentionally and not (I actually recently wrote about this). But the point is never simply the maximization of efficiency.

I think there’s an important lesson there for us academics, even if the vast majority of us are pretty secular. Just as the mindfulness movement comes out of a certain theology but doesn’t require it, I think something like the examen can be a really important practice for everybody.  It doesn’t have to be about sin and grace (at least not the kinds rooted in a theology).  But it can be about how we grow and how we don’t, about moving towards others and away from them, about a closed or an opening self.

We might then ask ourselves different sorts of questions. When we’re evaluating ourselves, how much are we looking at our whole selves, about the kinds of humans we’d like to be, that we might be able to be?  How much are we thinking about moments of joy, kindness, curiosity, peace?  How much are we thinking about the friendships and mentoring we’ve helped to develop that were, sure, productive, but also just fun, or supportive, or life giving in some other way? Instead of only thinking about what we didn’t produce, what if we also thought about the relationships we handled poorly or the ones we neglected? What if we thought about the service we could have done not just on this or that committee but at this or that shelter, or for this or that political campaign?

Look: I get it. It’s a job, and we have to evaluate how well we did at the job.  That’s fine. But sometimes we can forget the difference between a career and a life (I know I can).  How do we evaluate that life?  How might we evaluate that life everyday?  I don’t think I’m the only one to notice a creeping careerism that threatens to adjudicate any and all values in a life. And, for me anyway, a daily examination is a good way to fight back.


Written by jeffguhin

July 10, 2017 at 7:28 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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5 Responses

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  1. Another home run of an essay.

    Liked by 1 person


    July 10, 2017 at 11:47 pm

  2. Thanks so much!



    July 11, 2017 at 12:42 am

  3. This is why we keep writing. Thanks for a great contribution.

    Liked by 1 person


    July 11, 2017 at 2:50 am

  4. Very interesting, Spiritual practices of self-reflection have bee secularized in various forms (not lastly through accounting). I have done some work on the Jesuits and their Spiritual exercises now appeared in ASQ: Hope this is of interest.

    Liked by 1 person


    July 11, 2017 at 8:13 am

  5. Thanks Fabio, and thanks for the link Paola!



    July 11, 2017 at 4:50 pm

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