When Will We Ever Learn?

“When will they ever learn,
When will they ever learn?”

Folk music fans likely recognize those lines as the refrain from “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” which evokes thoughts of the Vietnam era. But while the song may be a generation old, the sentiment is as old as Noah’s day and as recent as the latest online newsflash. If you’re inclined to perfectionism, you’re likely to phrase it a bit differently: “When will I ever learn?”

Perfectionists hate to learn through repeated failure. I can approach the creation of a leisure reading list with a tension level suiting a commission to straighten out the global economy; small wonder that my idea of personal growth is to find a spiritual-discipline plan that will permanently wipe out my negative tendencies if pursued diligently for forty days. And small wonder that, again and again, I have tried to do too much too fast, and gained little besides the frustration of a thousand “When will you ever learn?” self-condemnations. When will I learn that “Thou shalt cure any recognized bad habit according to a strict schedule” is not one of the Ten Commandments? 

It may well be one of the world’s Ten Commandments, however. Google “self-improvement,” and be confronted with seemingly endless thirty- or forty-day plans for professional, personal, and spiritual development. Ask an office-supply store about “personal planners,” and get a three-figures-long list of options. Whether the creators of these materials consciously intend it or not, the implication always seems to be “this is the guaranteed, systematic way to permanently get rid of all serious problems in this area.”

The prevalence of the “one-month-plan” may well be one reason nonworriers are a seriously endangered species. On the one hand, we are assured that every problem can be overcome by a well-ordered approach; on the other, it’s near impossible to walk into a restaurant anymore without being confronted with news-broadcast proof that the world is anything but orderly. What real, obvious effect can forty days of individual positive thinking have on terrorism, natural disasters, or the long-range effects of political squabbles? Being constantly subjected to contradictory messages is a proven route to nonstop emotional misery, if not insanity. If there is one thing humanity as a whole desperately needs to learn–and never seems to–it’s that we cannot, and were never meant to, control everything.

Not even our own self-improvement. A careful reading of Scripture (e. g., John 15:4-5) reveals that God does the real work; our part is simply to cooperate. And that cooperation includes accepting God’s timing for our growth; trying to rush things, or pulling off in our own preferred directions, is no less hindering to progress than refusing to move at all. When children whine “When will we get there?,” there’s a reason parents never consider it a feasible solution to let the kids take a turn at driving. 

No more than a five-year-old can understand the limitations of auto speed, can adult humans truly appreciate the necessity of slow progress in spiritual growth. We can, however, accept that it must be so. As a fellow WordPress blogger wrote in regard to “lessons one needs to relearn“: “Maybe the most important lessons aren’t meant to be learned only once, but over and over again. Maybe it’s because the important lessons have to cut deeper into you as time goes on, like waves making a dent in the sand every time they slice the shore.” 

Or as St. Paul puts it in Philippians 3:12-14: “Not that I have already obtained all this [the full glory of the final resurrection], or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

The God Who calls us is patient with slow-and-faltering progress. May He grant us the strength to be patient with ourselves.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the wise post, Katherine.


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