John McEnroe once said, “The important thing is to learn a lesson every time you lose. Life is a learning process and you have to try to learn what’s best for you….life is not fun when you’re banging your head against a brick wall all the time.”
No fun? Brick walls? C’mon, some of my favorite times in life were when I was obsessively hitting my head on a brick wall. Did it feel good while I was in the middle of it? Heavens, no. Would I do it that way again? Hopefully not. (Maybe?) Why did I choose that path of pain? No idea!
This leaves me with a question: Can we learn from experiences that are without pain?
Experiences shouldn’t have to be painful in order for us to learn from them. But I believe the best learnings come from experiences that have some kind of inherent conflict, challenge, crisis, or pain.
Why? Conflict and pain seek resolution; we don’t want to rest on our laurels or settle for the status quo if we are in pain. Sure, we might choose a difficult path (going after a brick wall with gusto), but usually we choose that approach because it’s the path of least resistance at the time, a way to maintain harmony, the less scary path. Only later do we learn that there might have been a better way.
So how do we find resolution from difficult situations? Sometimes we find it by changing the situation. But sometimes we find it by changing us.
When I was in my 20s, I had a ‘teacher” journal. When I’d come across people in my personal or work life who just drove me insane, instead of grinding my teeth at night or complaining incessantly, I wrote in my journal: “Linda is my greatest teacher because she’s teaching me about how important research is to making a decision” or “Linda is teaching me to be a more patient person,” or whatever I thought I was learning at that time. It helped me deal with irritating situations—in the end, it wasn’t about trying to change the situation so much as it was just changing my perspective on it.
This is easier to do in benign situations—but when the stakes are higher, watch out—it’s tough! For example, my mother passed away two years ago. I was very close to her—she cared for my son for 9 years and took care of me in when my husband and I were getting divorced. Having to watch her suffer with cancer for 10 years was unbearable. I didn’t think I’d survive it. But I am moving past the loss to instead seeing and feeling the grace in her life, in her illness, and in all that she left behind.
And relationships? Well, those are the greatest trials. M. Scott Peck once wrote that “love” is caring unconditionally about the spiritual growth of another human being. I’ve been sitting with that definition for over ten years now—and am finally starting to see why he defined it in that way. Relationships are the ripest field for conflict and challenge—which means they are the most fruitful field for learning. Sometimes the relationships where we lived and lost actually leave us with the greatest learnings.
Peck wrote in The Different Drum, “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
I am still searching.