Recently I was talking to a client about trying to learn something new. We were discussing how as adults from time to time we are given the opportunity to challenge our known ways of being in the world in efforts to try a new way, ideally a more authentic, compassionate, inspiring, or life-giving way. Generally, this new way is "new" precisely because it's somehow contrary to how we were taught to be or to think or to behave initially. And like doing anything for the first time, learning this new way is often tremendously difficult.
As children and infants, everything we learned was new. I watch in amazement as my nine-month-old, Lydia, learns how to make sounds, to sit up, to push buttons on a toy, to wave at herself in the mirror. The interesting thing about learning when we're young is that even though it is obviously difficult.. difficult to figure things out, discover our power, and sense how our whole system is connected, it's also perhaps the easiest time in our lives to learn. I imagine this is at least partially because as infants and toddlers our learning isn't contingent upon first unlearning something else. We start off this human journey as an open book, curious, malleable, ready to be filled.
As we get older, however, everything we learn takes up space. And, eventually, when new ideas cross our paths, they will start to contradict some old ones. We'll learn better ways of doing things and so may have to let go of something familiar, understood and even appreciated. This is SO hard. The unlearning makes the learning unbelievably more complicated.
Whether or not we are fifty-years-old and learning how to budget for the first time after the death of a spouse, or seventy and learning how to live in community for the first time as we move into a nursing home, or thirty and navigating how to talk to ourself with compassion and grace rather than judgment and contempt, it's all important and difficult. It all deserves commendation.
That's the other big difference I have noticed about learning as an adult rather than learning as a child.. we (hopefully) praise children at even the slightest sign of improvement. Whereas as adults, we are more likely to condemn ourselves for not doing whatever it is both better and faster.
Lydia is trying to learn how to crawl. So far, she seems to have mastered crawling backwards, away from the object she is trying to move towards. She just can't quite seem to figure out how to go in the other direction. As I witness this, I notice myself praising her and clapping excitedly each time she is able to prop up her knees and intentionally move, even if it results in landing farther away from her goal. I'm not so focused on the result as I am the effort, on the part of her that is beginning to understand that she controls her body, that movement is intentional. On the other hand, I cannot fathom chastising or criticizing her every time she tries and yet "fails" to move forward.
And yet, this is what we so often do to ourselves. How quickly we are to grow impatient with ourselves; how slow we are to praise. We forget that we too are learning. We forget that we are in process, that we don't have it all figured out, and that our commitment towards continuing to find new and better ways to be and to live, is worthy of commendation. It's perhaps doubly worthy if our new learning first entails unlearning that which is no longer serving us.
So, today, I reclaim clapping as an appropriate and welcome response to any and all progress at any and all ages. I reclaim "Yay!", "You're doing it!", and giddy, celebratory embraces. I reclaim these things not just when we've managed great feats like finishing a marathon, giving a brilliant performance, or acing a project, but also any time we take a step towards becoming our best self, no matter the size of the step.
I invite you to applaud, praise, and encourage one another.. and, perhaps more importantly, I invite you to applaud, praise, and encourage yourself.
Yay! You're doing it!
Happy learning to you!