January 25, 2012

Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.

~ Phyllis Theroux


Knowledge is information. It is cerebral. It is about “knowing stuff”. We acquire knowledge from books and from listening to lectures and by observation.

Learning requires that we engage in some form of action that involves application of our knowledge. We must experience the knowledge. It is a process. We read a recipe and then we chop and mix and simmer and season. Now we have learned what it is to make soup. We read about healing a relationship and then we gather our courage and speak of that which is in our heart to our friend, our beloved, our colleague. We are learning to make human connection that heals.

Engaging in the learning process of applying our knowledge involves many lessons. A baby taking his first steps does not run around the block. In fact, he falls down every few steps! The first number of times I share honestly from my heart my words and tone may be mixed with fear, anger and defensiveness. It will be messy. But how else will I learn to run if I do not first learn to walk? How else will I learn to forgive and to love unconditionally if I do not first release that which prevents my forgiving and loving? How do I release my negative energy and cleanse old wounds or new without first acknowledging my pain? Like the baby letting go of the edges of furniture, like the six-year-old giving up his bicycle training wheels, will I find the courage to release my old defenses and mistrust? Initially, how could I not be awkward, like the baby stepping out on his own across the wide expanse of the living room?

Learning involves making missteps. It involves falling off the bicycle a few times before riding down the trail. Before I grow proficient and wise I will burn the dinner, cut my finger, drown a cactus, fold a few loads of pink stained laundry, starve a hamster, show up to meetings completely unprepared and yes, cause a sweet child to cry. And my friend. And my colleague. And the tired waitress who I criticized for the messed up order.

Active application of knowledge is to learning what experience is to wisdom. I like the image of mistakes being the bridge between inexperience and wisdom. Each time I mess up in a relationship, if I am willing to step back and observe what happened, I gain a piece of knowledge—a board in my hand. If I apply that knowledge the next time I am in a similar situation with someone, I am learning—how to trust, perhaps, or how to love, or growing the quality of patience. I hammer that board into place, building my bridge. Each time I am given the opportunity to practice this new learning, I gain experience. More boards, more nails; the bridge is growing, reaching for the other shore. In time, my experience produces proficiency and skill in my ability to communicate—including being able to forgo judgment and knowing when to hold my tongue. The sum of my knowledge, learning and experience makes it possible for me to trust and to love much more deeply and unconditionally than that first day when I looked inside my heart and saw the mess that was there. My bridge is complete. I’m on the other side.

My life is an interesting study in bridges. All manner of designs, materials and lengths, some are currently under construction. Many are beautiful and complete and provide me access to interesting lands. A few that once were lovely have fallen into disrepair. Have you ever defaulted into old behavior patterns and had to learn again an old lesson?

Today’s Practice

Rather than seeing my mistakes as endpoints or failures, today I regard them as necessary bridges to eventual understanding.

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