What's Tony Thinking

The Learning Curve


This is beginning to get hard — and I’m one of the lucky ones.

The philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, compared learning to a three-step dance.

First step, “romance.” You fall in love with something, or at least develop an infatuation. “Wow, that’s cool!” “I love that, I want to do that . . . I want to be that.” This is the sign-up for a class, buy the supplies/ outfit, read-all-about it stage. Maybe you experience some “beginners luck” and stand back tickled and amazed. “This is so cool!” And maybe not quite so loudly, “I’m so cool.”

The second step of the three-step of learning, according to Whitehead, is “discipline.”

You can tell right away that this isn’t nearly so magical. It’s when you discover your new venture is going to require some slogging, some tiring repetition, some sticking to it when it isn’t any longer super fun. I’m about here with painting. When I started a few years ago, I couldn’t believe I could paint a painting. Wow! Look at that! Look at me! The first blush is off. I’m still painting (so far) but it’s a little more labored. (At right, from an autumn hike near Mt. Rainier.)

And that’s about where I am with this whole COVID-19 thing. Maybe you too? There was some initial headiness to it all. Hey, we’re in this together! Hey, we can do this! Learning new things like ZOOM and Join Me meetings and chats. I had a “virtual beer” yesterday with a friend on Join Me. It was nice but, well, not the same as meeting up at Reuben’s Brewery in Ballard with lots of other chatty people.

Initially, there was a thrill in tuning in the grandkids on FaceTime or whatever, saying “I miss you, I love you,” and singing songs together. But now my body aches for them, for their hugs, for snuggling with one of the little buggers. Now, this is setting in. It may be months before that happens again. Damn.

As spring blooms (a blessing), thoughts turn to outdoors. I want to go hiking with friends, but get that doing the same old walks in the neighborhood (staying six feet from everyone else) is what’s in the cards. I wonder about summer. Will there be “summer” this year? Then a chiding internal voice says, “Quit whining. You’re not in Italy. Not in Syria. Not in New York City.”

The second step in the three step dance of learning, “discipline,” staying at it when you’d really rather not.

Whitehead’s designation for step three isn’t sexy, but it is insightful. “Generalization.” By which he means, we have learned enough from this venture (not that we quit) but that we can make applications to other areas of life, that we by sticking with it have come to a point where we’ve learned things that have a broader application.

When that comes, if it does, I may have learned some things about myself from this strange time. We may have learned some things about how we handle such an unprecedented crisis, lessons that will stay with us as the lessons of the Depression stayed with my grandparents. We may, one hopes, learn lessons that strengthen us for the future.

But for now, it’s step two, discipline. And it’s getting hard.

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