Why it’s better to learn from life than be taught by it.

I recently saw this ‘inspirational’ quote

“When you replace “why is this happening?” with “what is this trying to teach me?” then everything shifts.

There is a popular idea in personal growth circles that difficult things are really lessons, provided by God / Universe / Spirit / Source that we need to be taught to progress to our next level of ‘spiritual development’.

From this perspective, asking the question “What is this trying to teach me?” makes sense.

It’s probably a better question than “Why is this happening to me?” but I think the metaphor underpinning the question has some serious downsides.

This metaphor is of the teacher-pupil relationship because if ‘someone’, or ‘something’, is trying to teach me then they must be the ‘teacher’ and I am the pupil.

In this metaphor the teacher has the knowledge (the right answer) and the authority and power to deliver it. The pupil is the ’empty vessel’ waiting to be filled with knowledge from the ‘one who knows’.

The teacher is active and the pupil is passive.

The ‘this is trying to teach me something’ perspective has some important implications:

  • my experiences have been organised deliberately for my learning.
  • the lessons are provided by the ‘teacher’ and as the pupil I must learn them.
  • if I don’t get the ‘right’ answer from the lesson I must be stupid and the teacher will repeat the lesson until I do get it.
  • if the lesson is repeated then it is my fault it is being repeated.

It gets worse.

If you take the “what is this trying to teach me?” out of the abstract into concrete experiences then it looks like a very cruel point of view.

Imagine, if you will, that your parents families were killed in the Holocaust or in a violent ‘ethnic cleansing’. What is that experience trying to teach you?

Imagine, if you will, that your young child has been killed by a drunk driver. What is that experience trying to teach you?

Imagine, if you will, that you were repeatedly brutalised as a child. What is that experience trying to teach you? What didn’t you ‘get’ that needed it to be repeated time and time again?

I think these kinds of experiences are tragedies not lessons. If they are intended as lessons then the ‘teacher’ looks like a sadistic sociopath.

I think there is a better question than “What is this trying to teach me?”

“What can I learn from this experience?”

On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like much of an improvement, but I think it has several advantages.

  • there is no ‘teacher’ organising painful experiences for us. (I realise this amounts to heresy for some people).
  • without a teacher I take responsibility for learning from my experiences. I become an active participant in learning rather than a passive recipient of a teaching.
  • because the meaning is mine I don’t need to search for ‘The Right Answer’.
  • other people can have their own learnings from their experience and I don’t need to defend or justify what I learn or criticise what they learn.
  • I can choose whether or not to learn from any experience.
  • because this understanding is mine it is not written on tablets of stone and can grow and develop over time.

For all these reasons I think it is better to be an active learner than a passive pupil, so I will continue to ask myself “What can I learn from this experience?”

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