Friday, January 31, 2014

The Income Of Education

Pain pays the income of each precious thing. –William Shakespeare

Somewhere I read that Americans’ greatest fears are public speaking and death, in that order. I can honestly say that neither of these make my list. I love being in front of an audience and death doesn’t haunt me. My greatest fear is pain and suffering, both for my loved ones and myself.

I recognize that by confessing this I’m outing myself as a very fortunate man, there are many more horrible things that people have gone through, but one of my most harrowing personal experiences was the day of my appendectomy. I awoke with a slightly unsettled stomach, and as the day wore on it grew worse until I was curled into the backseat of my wife’s car as she drove me to the emergency room. The intensity of the pain continued to grow for what felt like several hours as they ran tests to rule things out. We were told it was probably appendicitis and I would eventually receive pain medication, but they didn’t want to mask any symptoms until they were sure. So in the meantime I suffered.

I’m not talking about fearing your run-of-the-mill kind of pain here. In our preschool, it’s a rare 15-minute increment that goes by without someone collecting an “owie” of some kind. That’s the “good” pain. Pitiable, difficult, but ultimately it’s an essential aspect of learning. Education is often light and joyful, but it’s just as often painful. There are some lessons that can only be learned through pain. For instance, one of our most frequently trotted out preschool mantras is: “The best way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it.”

Comparing bloody owies is perhaps the simplest and most engaging of preschool small group activities. Typically, the kids can’t wait to pull up their pant leg or push up a sleeve to show off their latest abrasion. And every one of them comes complete with a cautionary tale, which we share in as much grisly detail as possible. It’s a chance to talk about the pain, the healing, and a reminder of the lesson learned. I often share my patented bloody owie axiom: “If you have more than 2 bloody owies you’re not being careful enough. If you don’t have any bloody owies you’re being too careful. One or 2 bloody owies is the right amount.” (A few years back, my friend Charlotte disagreed strongly, insisting that 12 was, in fact, the right amount, which happened to also be how many she counted on her own skin that day . . . so it's a sliding scale.)

We don’t just learn through physical pain, of course. The emotional pain that comes from being rejected, insulted, or separated from a parent is also part of education. If someone is crying, it’s almost always a sign that someone is learning, as painful as it might be. It’s impossible to always keep it in focus because as adults we naturally want to sooth the crying child, and we should, but at the same time we have to know that some destinations can only be reached through pain.

It’s not just pain, but suffering I fear, for both myself and all of you. Suffering, to me, is the unnecessary prolongation of pain beyond its ability to teach anything worth knowing. Nothing valuable is learned, for instance, by those who are starving. Nothing valuable is learned when a prisoner is tortured. Nothing valuable is learned through the nightmare of living with an abusive spouse or parent. Indeed, suffering teaches only one thing: that life is hell and the other humans are its devils. That’s one awful thing to teach.

Of course, what I experienced that day in the emergency room could hardly be called suffering, and in fact the doctors were doing everything they could to assuage it as quickly as possible. Soon enough I was floating on a cloud of Demerol, then into a deep sleep, interrupted by occasional glimpses of my loved ones standing at my bedside.

It’s the unalleviated suffering I fear. If evil exists, this is where it is manifest. If I have any religion at all its fundamental tenant is that I must do what I can to bring an end to suffering. Life is not hell and the other humans are not devils. That is the most important thing we can teach and the only way to do that is to do what we can to bring an end to suffering wherever it is found.

The rest is the income of education.

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JMH said...

Oh... suffering teaches too, though its lessons are harder to articulate. Nelson Mandala wouldn't've been the man he was without the jail.
I have Crohn's disease and Fibro. I know suffering. I know lying in the bed wanting to die, waiting to die.
It's taught me things too. It's taught me to treasure the small moments. It's taught me to be efficient with my spoons. (Google "The Spoon Theory".) It's taught me that some things are worth the pain you see coming. In some ways, it's taught me to be more cautious, in some ways more impulsive and brave.
There is learning in suffering, but it's a harder teacher. It's easier to take the sad lessons from it.

Anonymous said...

I have had children with such bad separation anxiety that they cry all day for days. The worst one I ever had cried every day until Christmas, though not all day, eventually. At what point does this become suffering, if ever? I should point out that the girl who cried every day until Christmas went to kindergarten without batting an eyelash, so she did learn, but I was very close to calling it quits with her. I'm glad I didn't.

Krystal said...

I agree. I remember reading in a small group and miss pronouncing a word. I have never mispronounced it again. I still get embarrassed thinking about it. There must be room for mistakes in the learning environment.