“The best thing for being sad…is to learn something.”
Sometimes the best advice is the simplest. And sometimes that advice comes from a legendary Welsh wizard—and a Facebook friend.
A couple of months ago I was idling around on social media, feeling a bit blue, purposeless, and irritable, when I stumbled upon a post that captured my fickle attention and held it.
The post was not accompanied by a striking photograph. It wasn’t flashily formatted with a bright background and a fancy font. No, it was just some typed words—my friend’s words—and a quote.
Pattie—one of the most creatively brilliant women I have had the pleasure of knowing (for over 35 years)—reported that she had been feeling “sad,” and that her sister had shared with her a most hopeful and unconventional bit of advice from a fictional sorcerer of Arthurian legend.
This is what Merlin the Magician, in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, has to say about being sad, or blue, or melancholy—or even, I dare add, depressed:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
You go, Mr. Merlin! Puff and blow! You had me at old and trembling anatomies and evil lunatics destroying my world. Could this not be more relevant today than ever?
I couldn’t stop thinking about this simple advice. And then, on the way to the gym the next day, a new-ish Darius Rucker song playing on the radio further intrigued me—with this simple question: “When was the last time you did something for the first time?”
When I couldn’t readily answer Mr. Rucker—and already feeling an odd resistance/attraction to Mr. Merlin’s advice—I ruefully realized, that I, at my not-quite-old-but-no-longer-young-age, have become something of a “neophobe.”
It’s not that I am uninterested in learning and doing new things. No, it seems that I have actually become fearful of the learning process itself. I haven’t always been this way. In fact, I was quite adventurous when I was young. I learned enthusiastically. I learned thoroughly. And I learned in a hurry; I finished college at 19.
So how is it that yesterday when Darius Rucker asked me when the last time was that I did something for the first time, I was stymied? Of course, I learn and do small things, as we all do, daily—a better way to cook fish, a new bit of Jeopardy trivia, a different way to stabilize my hips in yoga—but it has been way too long since I have learned an altogether new skill or done an altogether new activity.
There are several reasons for this, none of them good. And aside from simple complacency (my current euphemism for “lazy”)—I admit that my “neophobia” is largely driven by another funky-sounding phobia called “atychiphobia.” This one we are all familiar with—fear of failure. My ego champions this cause, and effectively prevents me from trying new things for the simple reason that I don’t want to look stupid while I learn.
Which makes me the world’s biggest hypocrite. Anyone who has taken any of my classes at the gym has heard me preach these words: “Awkwardness is the precursor to cortical reorganization. If you feel goofy, gawky or graceless as you learn these moves—Yay! That discomfort is your amazing brain actually restructuring to accommodate new info. It is forging new neural pathways. It is actively rewiring itself to better serve you.”
So why the hell do I not practice what I so vigorously preach? I think that it has as much to do with confidence—or lack thereof—as anything else. I stopped believing that I could learn as adeptly, as readily as I once could, and this feels embarrassing to me. I compound my shame by comparing myself to others, most notably the brainiacs in my own family, and then, (have you met them?) I really come up short. (I wrote a story about this called “I Like Your Shoes” a while back. It’s pitiful, but hilarious. Click here to read it.)
I feel very self-conscious when I learn, so most of my studying lately has been behind closed doors where people can’t see me struggle. Ha! I read a lot. And write. And watch TED talks. And not a single soul has to know (until now) that so often, I just don’t get it—or that it takes me much longer than the average Gorder to catch on.
But there’s another hard-to-admit reason I don’t embrace learning new things as enthusiastically as I once did—especially when it comes to creative endeavors. It is hard to face the juxtaposition of my actual abilities, with the talent or intelligence I wish I had. When I was younger, this wasn’t so much of an issue; I had (ostensibly) all the time in the world. I could rationalize: It isn’t that I am so much untalented or unintelligent; I just haven’t yet put in the time.
Well, with my 60th birthday looming ominously ahead, that all-the-time-in-the-world-ship has sailed. This is actually a good thing for a person like me. It, ironically, takes some of the pressure off, and I can see that the experience itself of learning—not necessarily the finished product or project—is where the joy resides. This should not come as such a surprise to me. I have long subscribed to the notion that “the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” Why not apply it to learning as well?
So, back to Mr. Merlin, and his RX for melancholy—learn something. As I mentioned earlier, I myself had been feeling blue and directionless when Pattie shared this quote. So, I took it upon myself to learn something, actually, to learn something about learning.
- Learning is not only a 6th Century sorcerer’s whimsical advice for those suffering from sadness; it has been proven to be scientifically (neurologically and psychologically) crucial in the prevention and even treatment of depression. In fact, depression itself is often identified as a disorder of “failed learning.” In order for us to survive—as biological organisms or as members of families and societies—we must continually be learning, if only in the adaptive sense. Biology works on a single principle—learn or die.
That said, anyone who has ever been deeply depressed might point out that “learning” anything at all, let alone a new skill-set or art, is simply not possible from that place of bleakness. I would argue though, that for most of us, depression is more of a downward spiral than a sudden plunge. There are always moments, however brief, of clarity in that circular descent—as this Merlin quote was for my friend, Pattie, and indeed for me. Learning—just about anything at all, I believe—can not only stall a downward spiral that feels inevitable, but can begin to reverse it.
- Learning is not limited to or mandated by a particular “style” of processing information. In fact, the whole “Learning Styles Theory” has, in recent years, been debunked by many researchers as a “neuromyth.” They don’t deny that many of us have developed, over time, preferred methods of learning. However, they argue that it doesn’t scientifically follow that we learn better across the board using one specific learning format or one particular sense—for example, sight because you are a “visual” learner or hearing because you are an “auditory” learner. Researchers such as Barbara Oakley contend that learning is most effectively done contextually. (Check out her great TEDx talk, Learning How to Learn) For example, if you want to learn to distinguish between the different scents of flowers, you would use your sense of smell. That doesn’t, however, make you an “olfactory” learner when it comes to learning to play the piano. This is good news. It eliminates so many excuses I concoct when I don’t readily master a new skill.
For example—I can’t learn Zumba because I’m not a “kinesthetic” learner. No, I don’t learn Zumba because I simply haven’t put in the time, the focus and the repetition. It may take me a little longer to learn because I prefer auditory cues, but it doesn’t mean that I am incapable of learning by doing, by moving. Which brings me to my final, and favorite point about learning…
- Learning can be done on a race track or a hiking trail—and one is not necessarily “better” than the other. While I am in awe of, and frankly, envious of, my husband’s very quick and incisive intelligence (he processes information swiftly and accurately), I am learning not to undervalue my more meandering way of thinking.
Research shows that I might have an important advantage with my tangential thought processes—a creative advantage. Those of us who complain of poor working memories, or of wandering focus, often stumble upon more creative solutions and ideas in our plodding hiking boots than those racing by in their shiny Porshe 917s. Yes, they get there quicker—but where exactly is “there”? And didn’t I already proclaim that the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time, that the joy resides in the process, the moment, the walk along the trail—and not some big red finish line.
I think it’s true: Not all of us who wander are lost; sometimes we are learning. We may look a little lost. Don’t try to follow us around if you haven’t packed a lunch. But we are in the game. Our muddy hiking boots are proof.
And now that I have obliterated all my nifty excuses, I am ready to learn something new. For real. I’m encouraged—Thanks Pattie, thanks Merlin, thanks Darius.
And thanks Albert Einstein. He was credited with saying—“Once you stop learning, you start dying.”
I’ve always wanted to learn to draw. I took a little online class this morning. Check it out!
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