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
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
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?