“William James distinguished between what he called the once-born and the twice-born. The once-born are those who do not question existence and live out their lives with contentment. They are at home in themselves and in the world because they do not wonder why. It’s as if someone gave them a happiness gene. The twice-born are aware of their failings and the sufferings of life, and they long for a harmony that seems unattainable in this world. Unsatisfied with the palliatives that the world can offer – wealth, fame, success, a beautiful mind or body – and all too conscious of their failings and vulnerabilities, they set out on their own journey of self-discovery, only to realize finally that what they are looking for has been there all along. They have been looking for home.”
The term “born again” is usually associated with Christians who have accepted Jesus as their “personal savior,” who consider themselves “saved,” and who take it upon themselves to evangelize those who, in their opinion, are not. To be born again is to be reborn into beliefs that bring certitude and security about life here and hereafter. When philosopher and psychologist William James uses the term “twice-born,” he is not referring to people who have found certitude or security, but to those who do a double take with regard to life, who ponder its meaning, and question their purpose.
The thought of being “once-born” is compelling, for who would not want to be “at home in themselves and in the world,” content with the “palliatives that the world can offer,” and the recipient of a “happiness gene.” But in the realm of both religion and psychology, to be born once does not make us fully alive. When we merely buy into the ethos of the religious or secular culture, when we settle for keeping our faith traditions rules or striving for perishable goods and goals, something in us remains unfulfilled.
The Greek thinker Socrates is often quoted as saying “the unexamined life is not worth living.” To be “twice-born” means we examine both ourselves and life. It means we question why things are the way they are, in an attempt to improve ourselves and our world. James states that the “twice-born” are looking for home, something poet Robert Frost defined as the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in. The examined life is a journey of self-discovery that leads to the realization that the home, the harmony, meaning, belonging, and fulfillment we seek, is here, woven into the fabric of our daily duties and relationships.