The Salient Psycho-babble of Learning

Walking along the beach in Tel Aviv during the early morning I came upon a group ofsurfing about 10 preteens marching out into the surf with their surfing instructor.  As a reformed surfer I watched for about 30 minutes as their teenage mentor demonstrated the basics of this new adventure. I can remember thinking this was a unique way for wealthy Israelis to get there kids out of the house for a couple hours during the summer; no way would they actually learn this difficult, and often humiliating sport.

The toughest part of learning to surf to getting used to several new sensations of movement, balance, and agility which occur inside of  a  two second window between when the wave picks up the tail of the surfboard and when (and if) you get to your feet. There is nothing we do on land that simulates that experience. These kids faced a long and steep learning curve. I continued my walk as they flailed in the swells, took nose dives off breaks, and sledded toward the beach on their stomachs. It began as a real circus with none of the aspiring riders managing to even get close to their feet in spite of their persistent effort. What I failed to take into account was the fun they seemed to be having in spite of their utter failure or their total obliviousness to the beach theater in which they had starring roles.

Returning to the same spot 45 minutes later I was astounded at the remarkable progress. I now watched most of the kids rising from their bellies to their feet and riding the three foot waves to the shore.  The others were well within reach of realizing their first ride.

I compared that to my own experience at age 28as I tried to learn how to windsurf. Or at 53 when I strapped on a snowboard for the first time. All these events were ugly, exhausting, and frustrating with the latter also being very painful.

20th century psychiatrist Thomas Szasz  had this to say about me; indirectly >     “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.”

If correct, (and I can see a lot validity in the assertion) that would explain a lot about human behavior. Maybe we’re not as inept, stupid, stubborn or set in our ways as some think, we’re just incredibly vain! Certainly my experiences at windsurfing and snowboarding would lead me to this conclusion as I can remember scanning the area to see who might be quietly chuckling at my humiliation.  Had the bodily pain of the experience not killed my aspiration, my damaged ego would.

Szasz’s axiom about learning could easily be applied to adapting to new situations, negotiating even the smallest of changes in our everyday lives, or embarking on a new direction in life. As adults, maybe we should ask ourselves how much of the uncertainty or discomfort that arises from these new experiences actually comes from problems of process and how much comes from “an injury to one’s self-esteem”?

My wife taught elementary school for 25 years and used to comment that her favorite grade level to teach was 4th grade saying it’s the last age group where students still believe their teacher. I suspect that not only do they still believe the teacher but they also haven’t reached the point where they think they know it all and, as Dr. Szasz  is quick to point out, it comes “before they are aware of their own self importance”. Ah, youth!

I live in a small community where there is a sizable retired population. This demographic presents a formidable obstacle when attempting anything that involves change or a new direction; no matter how much merit such change would represent. While it is culturally admirable, it may not help that the community is very paternalistic and much deference (maybe a little too much) is paid to this generation on issues that focus on the problems that the next generation will face. 

As with most things in life there is the exception to the rule. In this case the exception is rather exceptional and as such should be celebrated. My 80+ year old mother announced that she wanted to learn how to send and receive email. (this likely was a veiled attempt to tell her oldest son that he is a world class slacker in terms of communicating with her) Having mastered this ‘new communication’ she now owns a Facebook account and routinely tags and writes on the walls of her ‘Friends’. I must take full responsibility for exposing her to this reckless evil. I should have known that Facebook can become addictive and my fear is that now she will secretly begin experimenting with Twitter. I worry about some of these grown-ups …..

The ability to learn, self-importance and vanity; who would have thought these were linked? Maybe I should reevaluate my approach to new ideas and fresh experiences ….. nah, what could I possibly learn at my age?


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