Lesson: Learned

This week I had the uniquely rewarding experience of enjoying the payoff of having learned a lesson. I’d like to share the lesson, then describe the experience, then explain why I consider the payoff a moment of “joy”.

Up front, I want to emphasize that I use the word “learned” in the truest sense – fully assimilated into my psychology and internalized to the point of automation. Contrast this with a “lesson heard”, or a “lesson appreciated”. If you have ever read a book containing profound lessons and thought to yourself “Wow, this is really great material! I need to remember this stuff” only to revisit the material years later and realized that all those lessons went in one ear and out the other, then you understand the difference between “hearing” a lesson and “learning” it. (I had that experience with Dale Carnegie’s book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. I read it with enthusiasm at the age of 20, and when I re-read it at the age of 35, I realized how little of its wisdom I had actually assimilated into my character. Upon re-reading the book, I learned how difficult learning truly is.)

A couple years ago, I was introduced to a commencement speech given by the late David Foster Wallace now known as This is Water. Understanding as I do now how difficult it is to learn lessons, and recognizing the profound importance of the wisdom I heard in that speech, I proceeded to listen to it several times in succession, then several times the next day, then periodically a few more times after that, and still again and again to this day. The speech is only 22 minutes long, and I can say with a good deal of confidence that it required no fewer than 10 listenings before I was able to even begin to internalize the wisdom contained therein.

This is important to understand. No one who has ever known me has accused me of being a dumb guy, yet it took me at least 10 listenings to truly begin to absorb a 22 minute speech. I say this not to denigrate my ability to learn, but rather to demonstrate how difficult learning truly is.

The theme of the speech was that, while most of us cannot choose what frictions we encounter during our day, we can choose how to interpret them. For example, when we get cut off by someone on the road, we can choose to either chalk it up to a catastrophic character failure on their part (“That guy is an asshole!!!), or we can choose to give them the benefit of the doubt that the behavior we see from them is the exception rather than the rule (“They might be in a state of true crisis – I hope they make it safely to where they need to go”).

Those interpretations we choose determine our emotional and psychological disposition. That’s the theme of the speech. How others behave is not in our capacity to control. How we interpret the behaviors of others is. Therefore we do not need to control the events around us in order to control our consonance with those events.

Seems simple, right? In fact, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, that’s true! I’ll just remember that from now on.” (To which I would say “Good luck… don’t hold your breath”)

Last week I was running in the gym on the ship I’m embarked on (USS Essex) when a guy got on the treadmill next to mine. He was not clean shaven so he was either a contractor or he was in the Navy (I’m guessing contractor), and he was most definitely not dressed for a run. He looked entirely lost, and when he finally got the treadmill to work, he ran at a speed clearly exceeding his capability to sustain for any length of time, stopped to breath, then tried again. He was clearly not familiar with his own capabilities, and appeared to be another one of the thousands of dudes I’ve seen throughout my lifetime that walks into a gym for the first time wanting to outdo everyone else so that he doesn’t look like the newbie he is.

Those guys often cause nothing but headaches for the rest of us. They don’t wipe down their equipment. They leave weights all over the place. They have no knowledge of gym etiquette, they flail around trying to lift weight that’s way too heavy for them, they try cardio routines that are way too intense, they punch the heavy bag trying to look like Bruce Lee, and they always seem to be in the way. So when I saw him gasping for air on the treadmill, my years of conditioned reflexes kicked straight in. I felt an immediate wave of contempt, rolled my eyes, shook my head, and braced myself for yet another idiot taking up valuable gym space.

Then I remembered Wallace.

Actually, I didn’t remember Wallace explicitly, or even the things he said. Rather, I began thinking the thoughts Wallace insisted are within our ability to choose to think. My line of thought went, almost verbatim, as follows:

“Jesus, this ass-clown is going to be a supreme annoyance, and probably wind up breaking that treadmill. I can’t wait until he gives up and leaves. He’s probably some lame sailor who doesn’t give a crap about learning how to use this gear the right way.

I don’t know… maybe he’s a contractor on a lunch break.

Maybe he was raised in a culture that didn’t value fitness at all.

Maybe he has always wanted to start going to a gym, but could never afford it.

He could be a contractor, raised in San Diego, who worked hard against difficult odds to get the job he has.

He might have been working on this ship for a while now, watching the servicemen work out in the gym during lunch, and it’s possible that he’s been working up the courage to come in here and try it out for himself for a long time.

In fact it’s entirely possible that what he’s doing now are the very things he *had to do* in order to build up the nerve to come in here and try to learn how to use the gym equipment without the humiliation of being pegged as a 20-something-year-old guy who has never been in a gym.

You know, I’d be willing to bet that he’s suffering anxiety at this very moment because he very desperately does not want people thinking the *exact thoughts* I was thinking when I began thinking these thoughts!!!

Man, I’d like to help this guy out. I hope he sticks with it and doesn’t give up. Come on man, slow down your pace. Control your breathing. You can do this!”

As easy as it is to articulate the line of thinking I progressed down during the 60 seconds-or-so it took to get me from that first thought to the last, it is much more difficult for me to articulate the true emotional journey that took place over that same minute. I wish I could, because therein lies the reward I spoke of. Put simply, I went from feeling supreme annoyance and aggravation in one moment to, over the course of about 60 seconds, feeling a sense of sublime solidarity, optimism, and camaraderie for a guy I didn’t know a thing about. The journey from “Jesus” to “You can do this!” was as rewarding an emotional experience as one can have, and even while watching him crawl off the treadmill to start fighting against a way-too-heave stack of iron, I felt like I was running on air. I felt like we were all in this thing together. I felt in complete harmony with my environment. The moment felt, as Wallace described it, “sacred”.

Of course, that dude might have been a total poser, who had no interest in fitness, and just wanted to go in there to show people up before coming face-to-face with the reality of his own limitations. He might have been some sailor who was just in there because his chief demanded it, and didn’t give a rat’s ass about self-improvement. There are a thousand possibilities, I guess, and I will probably never know what his real story is.

But as Wallace taught, I did have a very important choice. It was a choice of what assumptions to favor. It was the choice between dissonance and consonance. A choice between negative and positive.

“The choice between darkness and light.” – N. Peart

And once I made that choice – a choice that is now become more and more internalize and automated, one being made for me, without having to run through the internal dialogue – I began to realize that the lesson has been learned. The reward is abundant and unmistakable, and well worth the effort.