The world is getting better by a number of measurements—less poverty, less violence, fewer child deaths, to name a few, but we don’t see this reality unless we back up far enough to take in the whole picture.
Sometimes learning from our own lives requires a similar step back. I recently made a mistake I have made multiple times before. I’ve even set up a system to prevent this particular mistake—a system that unfortunately relies on me for implementation.
After a period of despairing over my inability to change, it occurred to me that maybe the lesson wasn’t what I thought it as was. When I expanded my viewpoint, a number of other possible lessons popped into view.
First, as long as a human is running something, there will be mistakes, and that goes for me as well as all the other humans.
This concept does not seem revolutionary, but we don’t really believe it—I certainly didn’t. We approach our lives as if a constant upward trajectory were possible, as if once we solidified a rung in the ladder we never stepped down onto it again.
Second, I realized that I put much more mental and emotional focus on my mistakes than on my accomplishments. We don’t recognize the world is becoming a kinder and more comfortable place to live for a number of reasons, including our tendencies to focus on what we’ve just heard or experienced and to respond more strongly to bad news. In a similar way, shame or guilt over a moment of selfishness might erase in our minds the generosity we’ve shown at other times.
A humane response to our humanity is to practice great compassion with ourselves and others regardless of the circumstances. Richard Rohr says God never leads through guilt or shame, and God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves.
Note: I was most recently reminded of these numbers in a presentation by Allan Rossman, who cited the data from Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now.
One thought on “Learning Differently”
I’m encouraged by Steven Pinker’s statistically and historically supported perspective. On the other hand, he acknowledges that past performance is not a guarantee that these trends will continue. I’m reminded of the astrophysicist Michio Kaku’s perspective that the next couple of hundred years will be the most critical in human history. If we figure out solutions to some of the existential problems that face us (energy production and the related environmental issues) then it will be our destiny to populate the galaxy. If not, we will descend into darkness.
I was recently reading a biography of Montaigne and there is a description of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre that he lived through. It reminded me that human history is filled with a litany of such horrors and that it is because the bar has historically been so low, that there is so much room for improvement in the way we treat one another. Human beings are evolutionarily wired for so much anxiety and wariness toward one another because of a natural history that is characterized by such violence toward one another. I’m grateful and appreciative of the ‘thin veneer of civilization’ that I have been fortunate enough to be born into, and that has shielded me from such episodes, but I also am aware that human nature has not changed significantly since the good old days of St. Bartholomew’s Day.
A few more uplifting thoughts.
The American Buddhist monk Reverend Kusala has described the buddhist spiritual path in terms of skillful (causing less suffering) and unskillful (causing more suffering) action and behavior. He acknowledged that he is constantly screwing up and acting unskillfully, and that the present consists of yet another opportunity to strive to act skillfully. It is a thoroughly forward looking morality. I found this deeply valuable.
I sometimes think that if God sees and loves me the way I see and love my cat Goliath, then everything is more than good. I’ll keep striving to grow and become kinder and wiser, but the pressure is off.