Life is not a Book
© 10 Oct 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Me: “‍I learned a great lesson that day…‍”. Them: “‍What was it?‍”


See also an earlier post on a similar topic.

From the end…

Let us suppose, as an axiom or premise, that life has a purpose and that that purpose includes us learning something which God wants us to know. Assume also that God, having both infinite time and infinite mercy, would not pick a painful means of teaching these lessons if a more pleasant technique would suffice. Acknowledging this will be an approximate activity, what might follow from those premises?

Well, it is evident that painful things happen in life. As the Dread Pirate Roberts says in Princess Bride, “‍Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.‍” I think most would agree that living (the painful part of) Oddly, I think that the happy times teach lessons is more widely accepted. I often hear, for example, “‍you don’t know love until you hold your infant child in your arms.‍” life is more painful than talking about (the painful part of) life. Given our premises, it must follow that there is some lesson to be learned from living that cannot be learned from talking about living.

What might those lessons be? If I could tell you that, our axioms would necessarily be false: they assert that some lessons must be lived to be learned. I might be able to name a lesson, like “‍a mother’s love‍”, but that doesn’t do anything to tell you what I mean unless you have already been a mother.

…and the beginning

From time to time I will have occasion to share an experience and mention that said experience taught me something. The almost invariable reply is “‍Really? What did you learn?‍” The universality of this inappropriate reply indicates I have yet to master presenting these stories. I am then faced with a difficult choice. I can try to tell them what I learned, or I can try to point in the lesson’s general direction, or I can attempt to un-ask the question.

“‍I learned that …‍”

One option is to try to convey the lesson learned in words. I do this a fair amount. Like describing someone’s personality, it can’t even begin to capture the true lesson but at least it can point in the generally right direction. However, the longer I live the less I enjoy this tack. Too often people take the description as definitive instead of descriptive, assuming that what they heard me say is the lesson.

“‍Wrong question …‍”

Another option to say “‍It’s not a lesson I can put into words.‍” This has the advantage of being completely true and the disadvantage that is communicates almost nothing. There’s no ability to say, “‍oh yeah, I learned that too!‍”, no expression of the importance of the lesson, etc. Except for pointing towards the topic of this blog post, it accomplishes little.

“‍I learned about …‍”

The compromise is to talk “‍about‍” the lesson without actually “‍describing‍” what I learned. “‍I learned about myself, how I react to being slapped and how to diffuse that mis-allocated adrenaline.‍” If done well, this can provide guidance to others who might wish to learn the same lesson in similar experiences. If done poorly, it can feel like a run-around or a pale reflection of the lesson itself. I seem to do it poorly in conversation.

Quid ergo? Should we stop asking what others learned, stop trying to tell them what we learned, focus on speaking of lessons instead of speaking lessons, something else? Frankly, I don’t know. I’ve seen a problem but not yet a solution. ’Tis often the way.

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