Learning and Learning Again

One of the books that has had a disproportionate impact on me has been Ben Okri’s delightful myth Astonishing the Gods, which tells the story of a young man’s mystical journey through a enchanted island city. One of the book’s themes is learning what you already know, the idea that we keep on having to learn the same lessons over and over again until we’ve really learned them. As the young man’s guide tells him:

“On this island of ours learning what you know is something you have to do every day, and every moment.”

It’s an idea that’s stuck with me, both as a general principle — a reminder to myself to remember what I’ve already learned — and as a warning: those who fail to remember what they know are doomed to repeat the lessons.

I was pondering this again yesterday when I was reflecting on my frustration at a counselor who recently suggested I try a practice I had been pretty consistently applying in my life for several years. My frustration only increased when I did what she suggested and found it hugely helpful. Had I not really learned this lesson years ago? Had I not really been applying for years already? To add insult to injury, I later stumbled across a post on my old blog, an open letter to my younger self. Upon reading this old post, I couldn’t believe how many of the lessons I was trying to impart to my twenty year-old self in the letter could easily be directed at my thirty-seven year-old self: the theme was essentially “Don’t be afraid; you aren’t as alone as you feel you are; and, resist the temptation to bitterness and cynicism.”

But as I was reflecting on my frustration at myself with these two encounters with old lessons, I realized that I needed to add a third prong to my interpretation of the guide’s lesson. Some of these profound lessons need to repeated, not because I didn’t learn them the first time, but because I did: it’s not just a matter of learning a life lesson and moving on, or even applying the same technique in the same way over and over again in some sort of eternal cycle where we never actually change. As we live and move and grow, tilling and sifting the soil of our hearts, new things get brought to the surface to be exposed to the light. And it’s only the hard work we’ve done in the past that allows this to happen. From this perspective, learning and applying these lessons over and over again is less a cycle of doomed repetition — although it can be if we fail to actually learn and apply them — than it is a spiral: we return to them, but we’re never in the same place when we do.

Whereas, last week’s post used the metaphor of allowing light to shine in dark places, perhaps the better analogy would be water slowly seeping through tough, parched soil. Our hearts don’t change at the speed of light; it takes time and patience for these processes and lessons to work through us. And this is a good thing. We don’t need to strive or exhaust ourselves. We can just allow the lessons to work through us in their own time.

And so, as I reflect on that wisdom from Astonishing the Gods — another lesson I learned a long time ago — I’m taking it with this third prong in mind. We do need to learn what we know,  every day, and every moment, but maybe this is true not just as a general principle and not just as a warning, but also as a blessing.

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