we never learn


by Christopher Wool

It’s taken my entire life to half-master some axioms so banal they’d make an 8-year-old roll her eyes. That’s embarrassing, right? But I bet you’re the same, trying and often failing to follow a few remarkably simple rules.

The rules as I understand them:

  1. Protect your good habits at all cost. When you lose them, fight to regain them.
  2. Quit before the bad habit fully sinks its claws in or else you’ll spend years trying to get rid of it.
  3. Hard work rarely feels good.
  4. Choose emotionally healthy people who don't aggravate your attachment issues
  5. If you lie you’ll have to keep lying. Don’t lie if you can’t sustain it.
  6. Get over your fear of rejection. Fear of rejection is very expensive.
  7. Continually assert your boundaries.

Then there are the more nebulous rules about how to be a good human in the world, which vary person by person (well, depending on how utilitarian you are). But they usually aren’t that complicated, either.

In the end all we have to do is to stay faithful to the same basic guidelines. And yet we never learn, do we? There’s the part of me that looks at the past five years and thinks I’ve changed for the better and the part of me that’s like—lol. I used to have a close friend who grew up Catholic and he used to say the part of religion that really resonated with him—even now that he was an atheist—was the idea that we are born sinners and must be redeemed. That’s a belief that resonates with me (which may surprise you, given my quasi-Buddhist bent and the way I write about acceptance and radical openness). But hey: you have to take some Old Testament with your Bhagavad Gita.

As far as I can tell we are born worthy of unconditional love, but we are also born flawed: selfish, greedy, dishonest, controlling, and afraid. We sabotage ourselves and we sabotage the relationships we value and love. We build beautiful rituals and abandon them. We construct full and satisfying lives and burn them down. We never learn, but we keep trying to learn. That’s the cycle we never escape.

In self-help terminology: life is a sine wave. Highs and lows followed by high and lows. Periods of perfect adherence followed by periods of falling apart. We are necessarily pushed into disorder by injury and tragedy and new life. And then we scramble to regain some semblance of what we previously built. We are changed by the difficulties we encounter, growing through and beyond them.

If I fail over and over again it seems natural to believe there’s no chance of redemption. And yet if I fail over and over again what can I do except believe in the hope of redemption?

I know that rules are sterile and people are warm, mobile, alive. Sometimes I worry that I make mistakes just to write about them. I can’t tell if I’m cheapening experience by turning you into a cautionary tale when I still remember the bright tenor of your voice on Saturday nights when you’d call to say I was the only thing that consoled you. And I’d reply: so why is it that nothing consoles me? Nothing except writing it down.

From Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing (his title inspired this title, by the way):

I recently met a very difficult but beautiful ex-girlfriend for coffee, and as we were talking I had two epiphanies: 1) I do not even like this person and yet 2) I would sneak off to the bathroom with her right now. With some people, it’s all a foregone conclusion once you get close enough to inhale the scent of their hair.

I know there’s no feeling more potent than playing games you can’t afford with people you don’t deserve. Before addiction becomes boring and repetitive it’s only electric. Learning is a messy process and it hurts. I’ve gotten so much hilariously wrong, but I’m masochistic enough to enjoy the mistakes.

These days I’m trying to be better. Still, let me say it first: I never learn.

Btw: sent out half of the Geneva invites and will do the rest when I get back from dinner :)