Learning is Confusing

Rev. George Doebler | Photo by Nathan Sparks

How much of how we learn is based on who we are and how we grew up?

What is it about “human nature” that it seeks so emotionally to know the facts? As if having all the facts means I will have all the answers. 

The world we live in pokes at our human nature to know the facts. Wherever we turn, we are presented with data. Years ago, I believed it was possible to learn enough, know enough that life would be more clear and directed. Those who I respected told me to have clear goals and set them high. To be optimistic and believe that tomorrow will be better. I thought to do these things I needed to go to college, even graduate school. So I did—only to find I still did not have the answers and tools I needed to figure out what I would do with my life. In the midst of this search, my dad died. He was 49, I was 19, my brother was 16, and my sister was 11. I was 1,500 miles away at college.

My mom was clear: “You stay in school. We will be okay. Your dad was so proud you were going to college. No one in his family ever had.” I went to his funeral and two days later went back to college, then seminary, then graduate school, then professional studies at the Washington School of Psychology, only to discover that I knew less.

It became apparent to me that the more specialized I became, the more I focused on learning about people and history, the less I actually knew. This created an internal dilemma: knowing that what I was learning was not only limited, but kept me from learning what I didn’t see. I came to realize that unless I understood myself better, I could not learn from others. How do we learn to know ourselves and how limited we are in what we know? And not be anxious about how the”facts” are often fuzzy to us.

I remember the words of the superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital, the federal psychiatric hospital in Washington DC. When I began my training there, he said: “Remember the mentally ill are just like you—only more so.”

We are all a bit mentally ill. It became clearer that those we saw as patients were actually our teachers. Going through 50-year-old files and notes I wrote after seeing patients or conducting groups, I find myself remembering these people and what they meant to me as a young resident student. It has taken me years to realize what they were teaching me, not only about themselves, but about me. 

How do each of us stay open to learning? Not only about what we are emotionally drawn to in our daily work and to those who we work with, but to those whose life, thinking, and beliefs are different from our own. How do I look at how I have come to believe what I believe? How much of who I am is the result of the family I grew up in, of what my mom and dad instilled in me? How do I come to understand how much of a role my family of origin plays in how I relate to others, how I learn, how I think? How much of who I am has to do with being an oldest brother or sister, a youngest, a middle kid, an only kid? Does this play a part in how I learn or do not learn?

Back to this idea that human nature seeks to know the facts—is it possible that the way we gather facts is “tilted” or biased by who we are and who taught us? Einstein wrote, “When the facts do not fit the theory, change the facts.” He seems to have known that “facts” could keep us from seeing and learning to see what we could not see.

The world we live in wants answers. It seems to be looking for someone to give us answers to the chaos we read and hear about daily. Is it possible that the questions being raised are more important than the answers we are looking for? After all, learning is complicated. 

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