Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What I Learned

I love learning. Truly. There are times when I have only half-jokingly said that you can get me to willingly walk through pretty much any hell so long as I feel I am learning something in the process.

Every family develops a story, a way of ordering their small world in an attempt to ensure all essential roles are filled and some sense is made of the daily drama that inevitably ensues. In my birth family the story was that I was like my father, while my brother (who was a year younger than me) was like my mother. My father and I were fair-haired, supposedly even-tempered, and slow to anger, while my mother and brother were the hot-tempered, emotionally volatile brunettes. It made for a symmetrical if not necessarily accurate family portrait, and some very competitive broomball games after dinner on the rink in our backyard where, at forty below zero under a star-studded sky, my father and I played together to consistently out-score my mother and brother who were. . . well, not playing so well together.

Broomball victories aside there were many ways in which I was not like my father. But it did always seem to me that my father and I shared an endless curiosity about how things worked. He was the one who encouraged my dinner time musings and questions about faith, God, social justice and human responsibility. It was only as an adult that I realized how greatly our areas of interest differed with my father’s curiosity primarily and almost exclusively directed toward concrete problems while my own musings ran less exclusively but more generally to abstract, spiritual questions. Realizing this, I was all the more appreciative of how he had supported me in my esoteric and ethical explorations.

But, despite this difference, what I shared with and learned from my father was a delight in and willingness to learn- to go to what Buddhists call beginner’s mind- the mind that knows it does not know and is willing to learn. Dad candidly confessed what he did not know, never pretended to know something he didn’t, and was willing and eager to learn from anyone and everyone- regardless of age or position- if they had something they were willing to share. Although he had always done physical labour as a Hydro lineman, when he retired at fifty-five he set about learning how to use a computer- something he doggedly pursued by asking questions of library workers, computer store clerks, the kid next door and pretty much anyone else who appeared to be the least bit computer literate.

There is one story that stands out for me when it comes to understanding what my father taught me about learning. One day, long after my brother and I had left our childhood home, while trying to figure out how to make a household repair my father found himself needing to know how to calculate the volume of a cylinder. Neither my brother nor I were available by phone (although honestly I am not sure I would have remembered how if he had reached me.) He was not yet on the internet, and there were no math text books in the house. So, after trying unsuccessfully to figure it out my father called the local high school and asked to speak to a math teacher. When the receptionist asked why, he explained his problem and told her that he assumed a math teacher would have the information he needed. He told her that he himself had not graduated from the eighth grade and, if he’d ever been taught how to do the calculation, certainly could not remember it now. She put him on hold and, after a few minutes, a bemused sounding teacher came on the line and told him the formula for calculating the volume of a cylinder.

My father taught me to enjoy the process of learning for its own sake- for the beauty of the questions, the fun of the investigation, and the satisfaction of figuring something out or at least trying to. One of the hardest things about watching him journey deeper into the mental confusion of advanced Alzheimer's is knowing that this joy has been taken from him.

This coming Sunday is Father’s Day, and I am grateful that my father taught me to love learning, take pleasure in puzzling and embrace beginner’s mind over and over. Thanks Dad. I love you. Happy Father’s Day.


  1. It is lovely, albeit poignant, to read your reflections on your relationship with your father. Present sadness could so easily take over so it is heart-warming and life-affirming that you are tracing the rich thread he has woven into you and your life.
    With much love and continuing strength during this difficult time. xx

  2. [Dad] was willing and eager to learn from anyone and everyone- regardless of age or position- if they had something they were willing to share.

    Oh what a different world we would live in if everyone was this open.

    Thank you Oriah for taking me back to when I was growing up, a pondering sponge (but without the nurturing). I smiled at the thought of your dad calling up the school. I can see myself doing the same thing one day should the need arise ... and I'll remember back to this as I pick up the phone.

  3. Thanks for sharing the stories about your father.

    The willingness to plunge into the unknown reminds me of two things I've encountered elsewhere recently. One is a quote by Martin Buber:

    "All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware."

    The other is Tim Hurson's TEDxMaastricht talk on The Shock of the Possible (apologies if I've shared this before ... I know I've thought of it before when reading previous posts of yours):

    "People tend to ask themselves the wrong questions. And if you ask yourselves the wrong question, it doesn't matter how good the rest of your work is. Great answer! Wrong question.

    What I see often is that the more expert the individuals are, the better doctors they are, the better engineers they are, the more learning they have, the more reputation they have, is that they tend to ask questions that they already know the answers to.

    It's really, really hard to ask questions that you don't know the answer to. But that's where the magic is. That's where we start exploring things in a totally different way. ..."

    Here's to dads, daughters and everyone else who is willing to ask the right questions and embark on journeys to destinations unknown!

  4. What greater gift could there be than the gift of openness and wonder? My little girl has an endless curiosity and, whilst I wish it wasn't directed towards some of the subjects she chooses sometimes, I hope that she never loses that. The world is full of mystery and beauty if we only know how to see it. And how precious to be able to see wisdom no matter where or in whom it lies. He sounds like an amazing man.

    Happy Father's Day Oriah's Dad.