“We are by nature observers, and thereby learners. That is our permanent state.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Fall is heralded as the season of new learning–time to put on the mantle of student for the return to school. While I love taking classes, trying new things and enhancing my skills, I am not limited to the school year. Summer offers rich learning opportunities, too.
The natural world is a wonderful teacher. I walk through the woods noticing nature recycling, replenishing and renewing itself. The downed decaying tree becomes a “nurse log” full of spiders and insects that provide food for birds and small animals. Moss creeps along the trunk creating a blanket of moisture that aids decay. Seeds and spores fall upon this damp sponge of rotting wood to grow into small plants that in turn welcome a wide variety of life into this micro environment. What initially appears to be a messy, wasted tree is really a breeding ground for a density of new life.
An early morning on a Minnesota lake, fishing pole in hand, is an opportunity to practice patience and persistence even if all I catch is the joy of being alone in the still morning air. I leave my task list at home. What is there to check off in the middle of a blue and green world that totally surrounds me? This is what peace feels like.
A couple of years ago I watched a summer storm roll across a Boundary Waters’ lake as we battened the hatches to ready the campsite and wait for its arrival. Reading news accounts of storms doesn’t give me the visceral experience of the eerie quiet before the roar, the sudden whack of lightening, the pungent smell of ozone, the staccato splashes of rain bouncing off the tent, the salty taste of sweat washing down my face by the warm rain.
So much of what I encounter can be a chance for learning if I allow myself to pay attention. On the other hand, I can strengthen my biases and entrench my beliefs–the woods are full of creepy crawly bugs, I never catch any fish, storms are dangerous.
When I was a student I prepared myself for a new school year buying blank notebooks ready to fill with fresh facts, theories and ideas. I bought reliable writing tools to collect what I was learning. I chose smudge-free erasers in order to change my mind, reconsider my first attempt, try again. I came open and eager to learn.
Imagine how much I would have learned if I had only brought notebooks full of last year’s notes, last year’s conclusion, last year’s answers. Where would I have room to capture this year’s questions? I wonder if that isn’t what we do as we bump into people that don’t think like us.
When I am at the edge of a swift river or an ocean I notice signs that read: Warning! Dangerous Undertow. I know to not go swimming here, to be wary of invisible currents, to be forewarned. I read the warning, step back and look for a safer place to swim. I sense something similar happens in our conversations. There are topics too dangerous to venture into. So we back off and stick to safe topics. How about those Twins? Hot enough for you?. How are the kids?
In the mean time I learn nothing about how you think, what you value, where you fear. I am the one putting up the warning signs. I assume a danger zone. I come with full notebooks–sure of my answers–without space to register what you may have to say.
Some families have a no-phone rule at the dinner table. Often a basket holds the beeping machines away from the gathering. What if we passed a basket to hold our biases and judgments while we engage in conversation? What if we replaced our assumptions with curiosity? What if, as Steven Covey says, we sought first to understand before being understood?
I recently shared dinner with a dear Texan cousin. We love each other and we view politics from very different perspectives. As we moved beyond the How’s the family? and the What’s new? questions, he said he wanted to hear about our trip to Washington, DC, for the Women’s March. What was our experience? What was it like? What did we learn? So began an engaging conversation about the Women’s March followed by thoughts and fears regarding the political climate and from there to many current issues with which we shared concerns if not solutions. We even felt safe enough to move from politics to religion! I left dinner feeling heard, respected and cared for. I have every reason to believe that he did too.
During a recent visit to the Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois, I saw many parallels between our current political divides and the division that led to our bloodiest war and left wounds and scars that continue to break open more than 150 years later. Like then, our fierce beliefs divide families, communities and friendships. I don’t want to spend the next 150 years healing war-torn rifts.
I am confident there is much more that we can agree on than disagree–more than the Twins and the weather. Do you remember the puzzles we had as children where we compared two similar pictures to identify how they differed? The instructions didn’t ask us to name their similarities, though there were many more than differences. Children find it much easier to identify what is different from what is alike. Perhaps it is time to seek out our commonalities, our similarities; to share our hopes and dreams, our fears and concerns.
We may not agree, but appreciating how another sees and listening to how they believe what they do can lead to understanding. We can learn how they came to their opinions, positions and perspective. We might see a still raw wound. We might catch a glimpse into what it looks like from where they stand. Like the woodland, it might be messy, inconvenient and unpredictable. And it might open us to surprising new life.
When we are willing to observe, listen, engage we may be surprised by what we learn!
Mary Lou Logsdon provides spiritual direction and leads retreats in the Twin Cities. She can be contacted at logsdon.marylou@ gmail.com.