A meditation on learning and brief defense of the humanities.
Life is suffering.
Life is one big problem; it’s problem after problem after problem after problem, isn’t it? I am not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but this is the fundamental truth of human life–it involves suffering. Nobody denies that pain is true. If you haven’t figured this out for yourself based on your own experience, stories from religious tradition and classic myths from around the planet have made this clear since as far back as we can recall. So has the story of human history. And, again, if you didn’t already realize this in your own life, human beings suffer to greater and lesser degrees, depending on circumstances. If you were born Jewish at the turn of the 20th century in Germany or Russia, for instance, well then, your particular brand of suffering was likely immense– practically beyond rational comprehension. Yet, if you are as lucky as me to be a college-educated, middle-class, professionally employed, white American woman with a fairly high IQ and good physical health, then your suffering is of a different sort. Though such difference exists, pain and suffering is real for all human beings, one way or another.
So what do we do when we become consciously aware that we suffer? Well, we either learn to accept and deal with the suffering, or we don’t. And if we don’t, we either run, remain in a constant state of anxiety that compromises our health, or we settle for an identity as helpless victim at the whim of a threatening universe. We will suffer continually whether we deal with it or not; we may also cause additional suffering for ourselves and others and the planet if we remain capable victims! So who or what teaches us to accept our suffering and problem-solve?
Here are two problems most humans face: How do I live or act in the world? Is my life meaningful? Another way to put this is, “I am here. Now what?” I mean, What do we do? The survival of humanity literally depends on our capacity and willingness to face problems and learn how to solve or at least somewhat effectively address them rather than pretending they don’t exist or otherwise ignoring them out of fear or laziness or entitlement (and ignoring is so easy with all the many delicious distractions that we choose in order to stay oblivious, busy, or continually satiated; perhaps we get fat and happy, but is that meaningful?)
It’s no surprise that all sorts of addiction, anxiety, violence, and terrorism, pervade contemporary life. How well are we bearing our burden? What are we doing to cope? Are we running, hiding, numbing out, pretending? Are parents and educational institutions properly preparing young people to bear the burden of a life of suffering? Do we teach them the knowledge and arm them with the tools they’ll need to problem-solve? Do we teach them their responsibility to themselves and their community? Do we warn them that none of this will be easy? Are we honest, or do we shield and protect them from the harsh truth of reality by spoiling, coddling, or desensitizing them, effectively reducing their chances of a meaningful life and sentencing them to permanent victimhood?
There are a lot of factors involved with how we learn or not, and cope or not, how we find the bravery and courage needed to deal with our problems or not. Human beings are very, very, very complicated, seemingly beyond measure. Because we are each unique, our learning should be primarily about self-understanding. We must ask the question and find the answer to “What makes me tick?” Each individual must know what it means to be a human being, intimately and thoroughly, so as to become aware and responsible for one’s place in the world and one’s relationship to others and the natural environment. We also must understand how other people tick. Perhaps all of this seems a terrible reality, a tremendously difficult obligation that also causes us to suffer. It doesn’t sound like fun. It sounds like work. Yes. You have a choice to pick up this burden or not. If you don’t, the burden will fall to others, in one way or another, and, even then, you will suffer along with everyone else anyway, one way or another.
We are social animals. We live in groups. We can be vicious and cruel beyond comprehension and creative, imaginative, and loving beyond belief. We are a complicated web of synapses and chemicals; we are bodies that function optimally and minimally, sometimes abysmally. There’s a lot to learn. And it isn’t easy, even for the most intelligent. So what shall be the purpose of education? And what about those less fortunate, those born with fewer capacities or personality disorder, chemical imbalances, low IQs? Again, the responsibility falls to the able, willing, and courageous in the group. Ugh, more work! More suffering! More meaning. More relief. More love and appreciation. More survival.
And, by the way, formal “schooling” isn’t necessarily the only route to learning. (In fact, unschooling may be equally effective as the most effective types of schooling.) One of the most accessible (and efficient) ways to understand human nature and human suffering is to immerse yourself in stories, the stories of your own life and of others’ lives. You can also explore the myths and great narratives from around the world and study history—these are the stories that embody the life experiences of humans since the beginning of their conscious awareness of their own existence and its inherent problems. These works of art are available through multiple media formats today, and many of the archetypal stories from antiquity are retold in ways accessible to millions of people all over the world. Stories bind us, always have, and always will. Check some of them out. They will speak directly to you. They are about you. They have been created for you. See what you can learn.
I doubt very much that science can solve every single problem for every single person in this world. I doubt that any sort of government can alleviate the oppression of every single oppressed individual (and it does come down to each individual because we are each uniquely oppressed). I doubt that blaming and finger-pointing or ramming an ideological stance down someone else’s throat will be productive either. I doubt that remaining ignorant and dependent is helpful. History shows otherwise.
It might be useful to learn how best to deal with human suffering and problems in our world, in our individual lives, each one of us, through an understanding of our own humanity. We have a responsibility, a moral obligation, to continue our education throughout our lives, not just when school ends. We can always, at any time, both turn inward to get to know ourselves better (and we change continually!) and look to our ancestors and the stories they told about what they learned, how they coped, to instruct us on how we might cope too. Find good teachers.
There’s much to learn about yourself, the world, the unknown, and the best way to start educating yourself is to become immersed in a study of the humanities and therefore your own humanity. Continuing your education — learning— should be the focus of your life. You should be striving to learn everyday, not only learning about yourself and the world, all the unknowns of your life, but also learning how learning works, learning how to learn, and learning to learn better. All of your effort will not only make the world a better place but the quality of your life will be immeasurably richer and more meaningful.
Humans have made civilization possible and we have made life infinitely better in a number of ways because of our voracious desire to learn. And, even more importantly, we have survived because we have learned to act according to moral truths– that is, in appropriate ways that prevent us from using all our brilliance to self-destruct and destroy the planet. We haven’t allowed the evil that resides in all of us to completely destroy our race or our humanity….yet. A lot has had to go right for us to continue to exist at all. Let’s continue to teach our kids to look to the stories from our past to guide us in constructing meaningful lives and ensure our survival. Let’s revisit those stories ourselves, again and again. Let’s support the arts and the humanities, not as an interesting relic of a classical education, but because it is urgent for our continued survival and the exact type of education the world needs most, right now.