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Learning Life's Lessons
At Living Gently Quarterly we believe that increasing our knowledge and wisdom through lifelong learning enhances the quality and comfort of life. Lessons can come from formal education or can come from nature. Whereas formal education's main punishment for not learning a lesson is usually to repeat the lesson until it is learned, nature does not always give such an easy way out. The price for failing nature's lessons generally increases in severity after each failure. I was reminded of this fact when some time ago, I spoke with Dr Rick Kool, a superb teacher of environmental issues and solutions some time ago.
Rick related a story about a discussion among native elders and non-natives at a conference on environment, ethics and education held in the Yukon. The elders were addressing the issue of teaching respect -- respect for the land, respect for nature, respect for other people -- to the young members of their family. Much to the surprise of the non-natives present, two of the oldest women advocated spanking as a sound method of teaching children respect. They reasoned that a loving spanking to instill the proper level of respect in children was a much gentler and kinder punishment than nature would hand out later if the lessons were not learned. They believe that wrong paths may lead to disaster, even death, and spanking is a way of telling the youth that they got the pathway wrong. Spank a child to ensure their survival, to ensure that the wisdom is correctly understood and passed on to future generations. While I do not condone corporal punishment, life and nature have their own set of rules.
For example, Dan Millman, author of several books on the way of the peaceful warrior, reminds us that life's lessons are repeated until learned. If the easy lessons are not learned, those that follow become harder and more painful. "Pain," he says, "is one way the universe gets your attention." The universe, the environment, nature, life -- by whatever name you call it -- spanks us until we learn the lesson right or die in ignorance. Dr Laurence Peter reminds us, "Experience is the worst teacher -- it gives the lesson before it explains the test."
What happens when we get the story wrong; when we take the wrong path, when we fail to learn the lessons the world gives us? The pain, in terms of dollars lost, property damaged, lives devastated or lost, increases. Some lessons we seem to have learned: the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has held off the further use of atomic and nuclear weapons now for 50-plus years. Other lessons we do not seem to get no matter how often repeated. Let a hurricane like Hugo or Andrew devastate a shoreline and wipe out human encroachment, and we forget the hazard as soon as the insurance cheques are cut and we begin to rebuild. We forget the lessons of the dodo and the passenger pigeon and the warning cries of the condor, eagle and grizzly bear, and we continue to fish for salmon and cod and clearcut great tracks of forest from Siberia to the Amazon. We watch the once great Aral Sea and Colorado River dry up and yet continue to expand Las Vegas and other desert settlements. We watch the starving children of Africa and forget that desertification no longer creeps but runs across the planet. We watch African and Bosnian refugees and forget who installed artificial boundaries around nations and biomes.
Although I consider myself an optimist, I often despair that we have not and are not learning the easy lessons. I see much pain ahead for the human race and many of the species with which we share the Earth if the current easy lessons are not heeded. Spanking will continue and get harder if we do not act soon on many fronts.
I also see many individuals not learning the lessons of their local environment, both natural and social. Learning from experience can be a painful way to learn. I know that I have been spanked by life in the past few years. Not as much environmentally but financially. Despite many years of good income, I saved too little for a rainy day or for retirement and have begun to feel the pain of those inactions. But I hope I have finally learned, that it is not too late to amend my ways.
How shall we learn our lessons? First, we must realize that we have many problems that require immediate attention. Only then can we see that action must be taken. Many of those who insist that we do not face environmental and social crises, and brush them aside by saying, "We have had crises before and have survived. These too shall pass," fail to see that it was not inaction that succeeded, but circumstances that defused the crisis before there was total collapse. More than a century ago when the shortage of whale oil threatened an energy crisis, fossil fuels were found and exploited. The threat was defused; the crisis averted.
Therefore, we must act. The key word is act. Act locally, globally, now. Not sit back and wait. We must seek out which actions are necessary to bring our lives and those in our community more in tune with natural processes. If we are unsure of the right actions or are afraid to journey the pathway alone, we must seek out and talk with those who have gone before. Listen to them and learn.
Learning Life's Lessons by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©2000, All Rights Reserved.
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