Learning Differently

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.