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What Have We Unlearned Today?

Joanne Sales – July 2009

We have had a lot of volunteers on our farm this season, called, Wwoofers, Willing workers on organic farms. At one point, there were seven young men in our living room, laughing and carrying on. They were from Germany, Japan, England, Australia, Canada and America. I looked around the room, and suddenly it struck me. These were the grandchildren of the “enemies” of World War II. But there were no remains of that hostility and tragedy. None.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but when it does, it doesn’t happen by accident. Something happened right. I think it had to do with unlearning.

Unlearning is an essential part of learning. We unlearn prejudices and opinions the same way that we learn them, through exposure, experience and repetition. We have to doubt, question our knowing, recognize our ignorance, and acknowledge that we were wrong. Sometimes that is hard.

I had a child so determined to convince me that he already knew the multiplication tables that it was difficult to learn them. It can be scary to not know, and harder still to admit it.

The early Quakers were obsessed with honesty and integrity. Their businesses flourished because they never cheated. Their scales were honestly set and they never put stones in their sacks of flour. People knew they could trust them. If you asked a Quaker in the 1700s what color a black sheep in the field was, he would answer “It’s black on this side. I can’t see the other side.”

That kind of honesty requires the ability to doubt our own opinions, not make assumptions, and admit that we don’t know what is beyond our vision and experience.

The sons of the grandfathers who fought in WWII arrived safely in our living room through the concerted efforts on the part of many people - to unlearn what they thought they knew and to drop erroneous opinions. It was not the first time in history. The “fact” that the world was flat turned out to be an opinion that everyone had to unlearn. It was an irrefutable fact until someone doubted.

Doubt has been given a bad rap, as it is usually associated in religious circles with losing our way. But doubt is also part of finding our way. Opinions are more dangerous. We are much more likely to go to war over opinions than we are over truth.

But we have a problem. Doubt is out; opinions are in. Most car bumpers that wore “Question reality” stickers have gone to the landfill. Many political leaders base whole agendas on opinions. Opinion polls are touted to reveal some truth, but they change with every news broadcast.

A new movie, Doubt, is a powerful story of a woman who is certain that she is always right, and in her certainty, she creates immense suffering.

We sometimes mistake being certain with being strong; but quite often being certain is just a defense in reaction to fear. It is not strength but bravado - an armor worn over weakness - white noise to cover the silence.

One evening I asked our twenty year old visitors what they thought were the qualities of a strong, healthy mind. Strength, focus, clarity, balance, and willing to face fear they said. But equal emphasis was placed on the wisdoms of not knowing - tolerance, flexibility, willingness to admit you are wrong, ability to not be controlled by emotions. These are signs of wisdom, the gifts of unlearning which has allowed us relative peace.

To not know is not to become stupid - quite the opposite. Our intelligence does not leave us when we question. If anything, questioning sets our intelligence free to do what it does best. If we sit beside Truth on a park bench in silence, it is not going to run away.

I won’t say there aren’t differences among these young people. Just like all of us, they are shaped by their culture. Some love a challenge, some love routine. Some love to work hard, others hide in the woods. Those who come from cultures with strong work ethics are the happiest because they can be happy no matter what they were doing. The children of cultures that define work-as-bad and party-as-good actually have a harder time having a good time, because they have placed so many conditions on happiness.

Like the rest of us, they also have unlearning to do. Hopefully, with a watchful mind, they will unlearn their limits and not their freedoms, unlearn their weaknesses and not their strengths.

Unfortunately, today, we have new enemies with different skin tone, traditions and opinions. But we no longer have the luxury to wait two generations for the grandchildren of “enemies” to become friends on Facebook. That means we have to be willing to “not know” a lot faster than the previous generations.

What have you unlearned today?