Thursday, September 27, 2007

What's Experience Good For, Anyway?

So my mom, sage that she is, always has this handy little saying she trots out when one of her dear children calls her with disappointment, or heartache or a strong desire to win the lottery so she (or he! it could be my brother we're talking about here) can call up the boss and say, Shove it!

What she says is this: Everything happens for a reason.

Her father taught her something similar. He told her this: No hay mal que por bien no venga. Which, loosely translated, means: There is no misfortune that does not also bring some good.

These admittedly fatalistic nuggets are not always the easiest thing to hear. After all, when you want something, you want it! But of course, it's never that simple. I've been writing about Randy Pausch's "Lecture of a Lifetime" the past couple days, and there's something he quoted that also seems to go along with this theme. These were the words he shared: "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted."

OK, so there must be something to all of this. What is it, then? What does all this so-called "experience" get us, anyway?

Here are some thoughts:
  1. We learn about the brick wall. If we didn't have obstacles, we might not discover what we really, truly want, or even why we want that thing.
  2. We learn that our lives are not completely under our control. This is an important lesson. I believe this is one path toward a greater humility and reflectiveness--if we can't control everything in our lives, we discover the limits of our powers, which also teaches us a great deal about compassion and patience.
  3. We learn how to get creative. If everything happened as planned, we wouldn't be forced to test the limits of our powers, by trying new ideas, new methods, by digging into new resources. Necessity truly is invention's mama.
  4. We learn where happiness comes from. So you want the high-powered job? Think your life won't be complete without the Prada handbag? If only you had one more bathroom in your house, then things would be set? The problem with getting exactly what you want, easily, is that you never learn what it is you really want, and what is truly important. You just keep feeding the consumer, because it makes you feel better for a brief while. Paris Hilton has a lot of material crap, but does she have a rich inner life? My guess is no.
  5. We learn to construct a narrative of our lives. When we go through the gamut of feelings--from elation to disappointment to love to grief--our lives take on the meaning and richness of story. Why do we like stories? Because they get us in touch with something larger than the self. No story is any good without conflict, so why should yours be any different. Experience gives you a story to tell.
Look at Randy Pausch's story. He's basically selected the highs and lows of his life to tell us what his life has meant. Judging from the public's reaction, his life's story means a great deal to all of us. Obviously he would have worth as a human being even if he had had everything handed to him, but we wouldn't be captivated by it: waiting to find out how his work with the Imagineers worked out, on edge to see if he would achieve his goal of being in zero gravity.

Experience, in short, is another word for adventure. While it might seem nice to do without the disappointment, the pain, the struggle--a life lived without adventure doesn't seem like much of a life at all. In fact, though Randy Pausch is young at 46, and only has a few months to live, his life is, without a doubt, one to be envied.

He has lived the adventure of his dreams. I wish you all--and myself--to have the courage to live what Joseph Campbell called the "soul's high adventure."

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