The year I didn’t learn anything.
I’ve been thinking about last year lately. It was a big year. I did a lot of things. Moved out of home, begun full-time work, ran a half-marathon, read through the Bible, beat my book-reading record, finished my knitted blanket, did a post-grad course in writing, and learnt to like dark chocolate.
I say this not to boast, but to demonstrate that I did a lot of “things”. I’m a New-Year’s-Resolution sort of person, and I completed a lot of my goals… but you know what?
I didn’t learnt anything.
Oh I picked up a lot of skills. I learnt a bucket load about endurance training and writing fiction. I learnt many lessons from reading, and even more about life: what it is to work, to be single, to live alone, to love people and to grow. Yet these ‘lessons’ fall into two categories:
- Either they were ‘structured’ ie. my writing course, my perusual of running blogs in order to train properly
- Or they were ‘incidental’ ie. I learnt how to deal with car insurance when I had an accident or find a doctor in a strange town
Either way, the learning that took place that year was ‘passive’. It was a result of a bunch of external happenstances, rather than an internal desire and quest.
Which is normal, and okay, and even great. That’s life.
But this year I’ve realised that learning also takes place in the aftermath. In one sense, I’m learning more, and I’m learning deeper about those things during this year, when I’m not actually doing them.
How is that possible? Well, this year, I’m living with my current circumstances, but I’m also living with the Year That Was. This means that:
- I have a perspective I didn’t have last year. I get to see last year side by side with this year, and that contrast brings out new understandings.
- I’m a different person now than I was last year (as we are every year) and different people learn different lessons
- I have distance I didn’t have last year. By this time, the small things have faded away, and I’m able to see what stood the test of time, what was more important.
- I’m ‘out of the moment’ this year, and so I can see beneath the surface. The physical experiences and events are no longer current, and so it’s a bit easier to see spiritual realities. For example, if last year I dealt with the stress of driving a hire car, this year I can see that underneath that stress was a false belief that God was not in control, I was, and could very easily stuff up.
- It’s easier to talk to people about things that have happened, rather than things that are happening. And the more we talk about things, or simply think about things in order to talk about them, the more we learn.
- Other people bring wisdom, and with the passing of time, the more people we meet.
With this realisation that learning comes in two phases – and indeed I might learn more looking back on the past year than I did during it – comes the discovery that reflection is important.
I need to pad my life with times where I can consciously gaze back at what has been and learn from it. Instead of diving into the next project, I need to take the time to think about what has been.
And I need to do that year after year. I’m not promoting living in the past, or anything of that sort. But I do think it is important to move beyond surface-level lessons and shallow understandings – and sometimes the only way to do that is to look back from a different perspective.
There’s no time limit. By God’s grace I might still be learning things about 2016 in 2020 or 2040. Truths do not reach a use-by-date – they only become more complex and at the same time simpler. They ripen. We, as God’s people, are still learning about God from recounts that are thousands of years old.
Of course, motive is everything. If I am sieving through my past in order to become (that highly elusive!) ‘better person’ or to feel happier about myself, then I ought to put that time to a better use. But if I am learning with God, about God, and for God – then I have a responsibility not to rush through life.
I have a duty to learn in the aftermath.
Some lessons are only learnt there.