Some lessons I’ve learned to get me through life

April 27, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

I’m constantly learning valuable new lessons, but I generally find it difficult to recall any particular good lessons at any particular moment. I got the same problem with jokes. I’ve heard a lot of good jokes in my life, but if I’m put on the spot, I’m at a loss to remember more than one or two.

I thought it might be a good time to dig deep to try extra hard to remember a few of those lessons that have taken deep root with me. One shortcut would be to cite some of the books I have read which have provided some good lessons. For me, one of those books has been Inner Peace for Busy People, by psychologist Joan Borysenko (2001). She divided her book into 52 chapters, each of them offering a strategy for holding things together and finding peace in one’s life.

In chapter 1 Borysenko recommends that we pay attention to the Yerkes-Dodson law, which holds that increased stress makes us more productive only to a point, while further increases decrease productivity. Borysenko argues that many highly productive people operate “on the descending limb of the stress/productivity curve.” In short, they could be more productive if they could only push themselves a bit less, which would reduce the toll they are putting on their overstressed bodies.

In chapter 2 (of her 52 chapter book), Borysenko draws on the Buddhist saying that “Peace is like a sun that’s always shining in your heart. It’s just hidden behind clouds of fear, doubt, worry and desire that continually orient you toward the past or the future. The sun comes out only when you are in the present moment. Step one when you feel crazy busy is to take a breath to help let go of whatever it is on your mind. Think, here I am. Let your body relax, and feel your connection to the larger whole.” Breathing is so incredibly important that Borysenko devotes her entire third chapter to teaching her readers how to breathe.

Many of the worthwhile lessons I have learned have come in the form of written quotes. For instance, you can see that many of the posts at this site have been categorized as “quotes.” Those “lessons” arrive in a constant stream. Here are three recent quotes that constitute good “lessons” for me:

When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion.
Abraham Lincoln

It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government.
Thomas Paine

We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.
Thomas Edison

I do not follow any form of organized religion, but some of the figureheads of some of the most popular religions teach some excellent lessons. One of those impressive religious leaders would be the Buddha, who taught that A) suffering is an inherent part of existence; B) that the origin of suffering is ignorance and the main symptoms of that ignorance are attachment and craving and C) that attachment and craving can be ceased. I find these lessons to be incredibly important in my life, even though I struggle to employ these lessons in my daily existence.

Speaking of religious leaders, some critically important lessons have been attributed to Jesus. Again, I do not follow any organized religion; I certainly don’t believe in any of the supernatural claims that many Christians proclaim.  In fact, here is a post that presents some of the many reasons I disbelieve claims of supernatural occurrences and indicating my doubts that the “Jesus” of the Gospels ever actually existed. On the other hand, the lesson that one should love one’s enemy is both elegant and powerful, no matter who taught this lesson. The love-your-enemy lesson appears in many places in the Gospels, including Luke 6:27-36. The following passages are from a religious site that collects many of these passages

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you?

What is demanded in this lesson to love one’s enemy is that one should go against one of the deepest instincts humans have: to favor members of one’s in-group and to mistreat and disparage members of out-groups. This lesson, which is essentially a call to universal empathy, challenges a powerful biological instinct that drives most humans most of the time. The lesson is nothing short of revolutionary. If only the alleged Christians who run this country would give the tiniest bit of heed to this incredibly challenging lesson.

I pick up lessons from many sources. When one of my nieces was in the fifth grade, she taught me this one: “It’s not your fault, but it’s your problem.” With that one sentence, one can wipe away lots of paralyzing frustration and re-focus on the task at hand.

A very close friend shared a motel room with me the night before I got married (this was twelve years ago). We were checking into a small motel in Long Island, New York. The motel worker who was checking us in that night was exceedingly grumpy. My instinct was simply to fill out the paperwork and get to our room so that we didn’t have to deal with this guy. My buddy had a different instinct, one that he had been cultivating for many years. He looked at the man with empathy and said: “It looks like you been having a difficult night.” The hotel clerk paused, then said something like, “I’m just really nervous because I need to go to the hospital on Monday morning in order to get a procedure done. It has me all upset.” My friend and the clerk chatted for a few more minutes, before we finally did go to our room. I felt embarrassed, because I had so quickly written this fellow off as annoying, while my friend insisted on trying to make a connection before we moved on. As it turned out, the guy who worked at the hotel was quite a friendly fellow, and he told us that he really appreciated talking with us. It made him feel less nervous.

In this hectic world, it’s really tempting to write people off based upon their appearance, their job, their history or their reputation. It’s amazing, however, how often someone you “figured out” is nothing like what you thought. That was one of the many lessons taught this afternoon by Amy Goodman (who was giving a lecture in St. Louis). Amy has spoken to many people who wear little American flags on their lapels who, if you bother to talk with them, are highly upset about what the Bush administration has been doing. How often are we tempted to write these people off, however, as Bush apologists? There is no substitute for taking the time to listen closely to other people, if you really want to know who they are.

My father used to say that “People believe what they want to believe.” That’s an important lesson, of course, but stopping with this simple lesson can cause one to become cynical or arrogant. An important lesson I have learned is that this platitude must never be a final conclusion, but only the beginning of an exploration. Why and how do people believe what they want to believe? To what extent do emotions determine what is rational? Humans are complicated bags of tricks that deserve considerable scrutiny.

About 15 years ago, learned a good lesson from a friend who was struggling with the thought of changing careers. He was about 35 years old then, and he was an engineer. He was not happy being an engineer, and he was tempted to apply to attend medical school. The time and money investment was daunting, however, so he decided to talk to a career counselor. He explained his situation to her:

I’m thinking about going to medical school, but I’m already 35 years old. By the time I get through four years of medical school, I’ll be 39 years old. And then I need to do a year of internship and maybe three years of residency. I’ll probably be 43 years old by the time I am ready to work as a doctor.

The career counselor looked straight at him and said the following, without hesitation: “How old do you think you’ll be in eight years if you don’t go to medical school?” It was this conversation that inspired my friend to follow through with his application and actually attend medical school.

Here’s one final lesson that I was reminded of today (because I happened to visit the friend to whom this happened). The lesson is that you should always know who you are talking to on the phone. Don’t make assumptions. Here’s the story: my friend needed to have some carpet installed in her house. She worked hard to schedule the carpet installer to come to her house at a the time convenient to her. During that period of her life, my friends life was quite hectic with work responsibilities and she felt somewhat frazzled. While she was feeling especially stressed, the phone rang and a woman asked for her, but mispronounced her name. My friend, perturbed that another telemarketer was bothering her, blurted out, “Ms. Johanson is dead. She died last night.” That simple phrase got the telemarketer off the phone immediately. The next morning, my friend was waiting for the carpet installer to show up, but no one showed up. Exasperated, she called the company to ask why the installer had not shown up. A woman who worked for the company got on the phone and explained, “we’re very sorry, but we called your house yesterday to confirm the appointment for today, and we were told by someone that you had died.” My friend, feeling great embarrassment, mumbled something like “I don’t know how who would’ve said such a thing.” She ended up rescheduling the appointment.

There are thousands of other lesson is out there, of course. Many of them are available over the Internet and I find that many of these are well worth a look. For instance, here is a site at which many scientists offer lessons about what science means to them. Here are some worthwhile lessons spontaneously offered by people attending a convention in Las Vegas. The question asked of them was this: If you could pass on one valuable lesson to the world before you die, what would it be?

This afternoon, Amy Goodman reminded the audience of a lesson attributed to Gandhi, pertaining to the stages of his winning strategy for nonviolent activism:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

It is important to have lessons like these available as we try to make sense of this crazy world. It is not always critically important that each of these lessons is entirely consistent with all of the other lessons from which we draw understanding. You see, understanding is, like many things, a matter of satisficing. We are happy enough with good enough.

That, too, is an important lesson.


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Category: American Culture, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Quotes, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." This seems to be the attitude of the Intelligent Design movement. Backlash against their latest movie appears to be creating sympathy from those who don't really agree.

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks Erich, your help is appreciated.

    The part about "love thy enemy" rings true in many different situations, short of actual war. (and maybe even in war?)

    As someone who plays (and loses) a lot of games, I find it more enjoyable to treat my opponent (enemy) with full respect. Rather than get angry and bitter if they happen to beat me, I (try to) consider that they have given their time and effort and have indeed earned their victory. When I get beat by cheaters, I just consider that on some level, it is a compliment to my skill, that they would require an unfair advantage to beat me.

  3. Mark Hochhauser says:

    Imagine my surprise to see you quote the 1908 Yerkes-Dodson Law in your post. I did my 1973 experimental psycholology dissertation on the Yerkes-Dodson Law–and came up with results that contradicted their findings. My advisor and I published the results in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes in 1975, 104(3), 261-269. I haven't read Joan Borysenko's book, so I don't know if she accurately summarized the strengths and weaknesses of that Law, but it's always risky to generalize from 1908 animal behavior to 2001 human behavior.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: Thanks for your caveat. Borysenko is using Yerkes-Dodson in the same popular sense described in Wikipedia, for what that is worth. When you're ready to post your 1973 dissertation, let me know!

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