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

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“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?

Wait, Can You Translate That For Me?

Tonight I had a chance to hear a lecture by Julia Kristeva, feminist, linguist, psychoanalyst, novelist, and general philosophical giant. I would say that she inflected my thinking during my brief forays into literary theory, but that would be to insinuate that I actually understood her writing enough to have an opinion. She was always one of those thinkers that I hoped to immerse myself in and understand – someday. This was my chance to do it, even though I had not picked up one of her books in years. Guess what? There is nothing like an hour of listening to incredibly long sentences uttered in a French-Bulgarian accent to make you feel like you an intellectual midget.

Most of the time I watched my brain flutter around, picking up a few sentences from the lecture and then despairing because I seem to have the attention span of a gnat. This woman was throwing around allusions to Kant and Heidegger and I was realizing that I could not focus on her brilliance for longer than 30 seconds at a time.

What has happened to my mind? Was I ever focused and attentive enough to be up to the task of fully comprehending a discussion of the existence of a unified European culture? Do I blame the Internet for shattering my consciousness into a morass of disconnected ideas, juiced up on sound bites and video clips, “cheat sheets” rather than newspaper articles?

I listened to Kristeva speak in a hall full of undergraduates. Some of them nodded as she mentioned the dead white guys they had probably just read for their survey courses. Some disrupted the ten people in their row to leave halfway through. As Kristeva talked of quadrilingual Europeans I wondered how many twenty year olds in that room could really read, never mind write, a poem in another language. I know that I certainly could not, and I wonder what the American intellectual climate will look like when people of my generation and those who follow us take up the intellectual reigns. Will we be able to truly bear witness to other cultures in the world or will we just teach our kids about this amazing global society that is almost completely navigable in English?

As our European counterparts begin to divide themselves into so many pieces that they are conversant in four languages, we seem to be slicing up our attention spans so that we can monitor four different windows at once. Is this just a different kind of schizophrenia? Is the Continental model focused on a valid multiplicity of identity while we are just swimming around in countless pools of English speaking triviality?

Perhaps I am being too hard on our country because it is so easy to be a critic of the world that nurtures me and just as easy to romanticize other parts of the world because, hey, I don’t speak the language!

It seems that at the very moment that the earth is becoming small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, it is growing stunningly out of reach. There is so much information in the world to absorb, we cannot possibly take in even the tiniest fraction. How can we figure out what to focus upon and how do we train our brains to be receptive enough for all that knowledge to matter?

Maybe I am mourning a hyper-intellectualism that we will not even miss. Perhaps we are moving to a more democratic discourse that does not demand a working knowledge of semiotics to gain entry. Is it possible I am just panicking because we are entering a new age when the academic signposts are changing and we all must get used to redefining nature and origins of wisdom?