The Dance with Difficulty: Learning and the “Hard Stuff”


“I’m just glad to hear that someone else is doing something that’s hard.”

My dear friend Lady Bird said this to me in one of our many conversations in which we hash out the contents of our souls and describe the decor of our interior castles. She was responding to a comment I made about how challenging it was to practice all I was learning in my healing artists’ school. This healing work was asking more of me, mind, body and spirit, than I had ever imagined.

As an English major, I remember being envious of my friends who were studying more technical things. I longed to be immersed in brand new concepts in the way that the biology majors learned about obscure physical processes and the psychology students learned about the activities of the brain.

It wasn’t that every poem and novel didn’t offer new gateways into knowledge – in many ways it was much more limitless than the structures of scientific theories. It was just that everything was so open ended and there were so few “right” answers that I sometimes felt a little at sea. We would all read the same books and compose completely different papers that flowed in countless directions. I was full of free floating thought (isn’t that what liberal arts educations are supposed to give you – the ability to think?), but I felt that I was getting little concrete information. My brain was learning expansion, but not necessarily discipline.

As my days as a student become a smaller and smaller percentage of my life (funny how that happens – when I was 22 I could say that I had spent 10% of my life in Ireland – I don’t want to do the math to know what it is now!), I look at that legacy of how I learned to learn.

What is my relationship with gathering and retaining knowledge now?

And, what does it mean to embark upon learning something that’s hard?

dsc00095So much of life is already “hard.” Finding work that sustains you economically, mentally, emotionally. Taking steps to be physically and mentally healthy. Maintaining relationships and finding the balance between caring for ourselves and others. Monitoring all of the suffering in the world and making whatever small steps we can to alleviate it. Coping with pain and death and debt and loneliness

Getting through the day is so often challenging enough, why take on any more stuff? We have so many practical and emotional battles to fight, why add more information and “to dos” to the list?

This morning I started looking back on the last few years of my life. There have been countless challenges that have forced me to grow as a person and I know I have learned thousands of essential lessons.

I have read hundreds of books and meandered down countless avenues of thought. And yet, I have enjoyed the luxury of being my own teacher, putting the book down when the prose got too thick or the philosophy deviated too much from what I thought I wanted to absorb.

Last week, I mentioned that I still thought about how I had decided against pursuing my PhD. Though it is still in the back of my mind as a path not taken, I treasure the freedom I have had to pursue whatever wisdom strikes my fancy.

Now, I find myself in a completely other kind of study. It is wildly open ended as I use all of my creative powers in service to another’s healing process, and yet there is groundwork to be laid and structures to be learned first. I find my brain needing to adapt to a whole new sort of discipline that can let me fly free and stay grounded at the same time.

dsc001831We are still in the time of a year’s fresh new thoughts and dreams. Maybe this is a good moment for you to consider how you learn new things and how you engage with stuff that’s “hard.”

Is there information that begs to be absorbed in a new way? Are there challenges that ask for a different sort of attention?

What new territory is asking to be claimed and explored?

4 thoughts on “The Dance with Difficulty: Learning and the “Hard Stuff”

  1. blisschick January 2, 2009 / 4:09 pm

    Oh…I am whining because this doesn’t help ME at all…and it’s all about ME, isn’t it?!?! 🙂

    I even started filling out the application; they make it easy — all online.

    So, is it fear stopping me? Which means I must forge ahead!

    Or is it just the wrong thing?

    THIS is the byproduct of becoming disconnected from our instincts; we don’t recognize them when they assert themselves. Or we mistake second thoughts for our “practical, smart” selves.

    (Go ahead, make fun of me — I’ve been doing it all day over this one and I deserve it!)

  2. brandi January 2, 2009 / 5:57 pm

    but ya know, I find that just mumbling through my day to day routine is so much ‘harder’ than actually taking on a new challenge. It’s in learning, expanding, growing and taking risks that I feel so alive and energized.

    the hum drum without some of that is what’s HARD to me.

  3. Barbara January 2, 2009 / 11:54 pm

    If you want a real challenge, try learning Japanese. It is starting to give me a headache now that I am beginning to learn the kanji, or characters derived from Chinese. But what is REALLY hard to learn is to love someone who is purposely difficult to love. You are better off without them, in one sense, but God is calling you to make the effort. Absorbing lots of pain and ego is difficult.

    • girlwhocriedepiphany January 4, 2009 / 12:51 pm

      Dear Bliss, You know I’m not going to make fun of you! I have been working with Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle and man, is that all about trying to learn to trust yourself. I keep having to talk myself off the mental ledge when I start stressing about what is the voice of my soul and divine guidance and what is double think and mental static. Did you press send on the application yet???

      Dear Brandi, Exactly! It’s all about inertia in so many ways – we tend to stay in motion, ready to take on all of the challenges of life when we allow ourselves to engage with something risky. I am always hearing your wisdom “no more of this playing it small crap.”

      Dear Barbara, It’s so funny, as I was writing this I was thinking about how I was learning Irish in college (not a tough as kanji, but pretty darn obscure to the English speaker with her smattering of high school French!). I guess translating Irish poetry seemed as open ended as studying the same work in English – you could pick five different words and create five hundred different verses. As for the deeper, non-linguistic message – that dance of “should I just walk away from you, you stressful being who diminishes the light in my life” or should you stand by and endure the smallness and limitations in hopes that you can help expand their world… A constant battle that sometimes makes learning calculus look downright easy!

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