Along time ago, in a far a way land, a man went on a journey far from home. Along the way came to a fast-flowing river that was both wide and deep. There was no sign of a ferry boat or a bridge anywhere around. Because his journey was important and others would be expecting him, he dove into the water and began the perilous swim across.
After struggling against the raging water and almost drowning, he emerged cold, tired and wet on the other shore where he was greeted by a young girl from a local village. Once he had rested a few moments and regained a little of his strength, the girl took him by the hand and led him down the stream and around a bend. Rounding the curve they came to a place where the river had worn the mountain away into a natural stone bridge unlike anything the man had seen before.
“Too bad that I will not return this way” thought the man “because I surely know how to cross the river now.” Nevertheless, from then on every time he came to a river or stream he remembered the hidden bridge that the little girl had showed him and would walk for a little piece up and down to search for a better way across. Often he found one.
I wrote the above story some years ago during a time in my life when I was on a journey—a figurative, personal ‘walkabout’ of sorts. During this period of self-discovery I found myself arriving at all kinds of proverbial rivers, dead-ends, and blind drops. And incidentally, every time that I’d fight my way over, through or under these ‘wilderness challenges’ it seemed that I would immediately discover some better—easier way that I could have accomplished my goal. If I’d only known to try that way to begin with then I could have overcome the challenge with a whole lot less time, effort and pain. After this happened several times I finally got the point: If I could only learn to pay more attention and open my eyes to look for ‘hidden bridges’ then I might not always have to do things the hard way.
We can all probably agree that there’s no better teacher in life than experience. In an ideal world we’d learn adequately by just hearing about or observing the experiences of others. But unfortunately, human beings are just not wired like that. The oriental philosopher Confucius said “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”. In other words, our best learning takes place when we are tactilely involved with the world. For instance, as children we’re told by our mother not to touch the stove because it’s hot and we’ll get burned. But how many of us have ever settled for this advice? Maybe I’m especially hard-headed but I’ve learned the hard way that Mom was not only right about the stove but that she also had a keen understanding of why we shouldn’t stick paper clips into power outlets, try to pet dogs while they’re eating or pee on electric fences while their ‘hot’. However, few scrapes, bumps and shocks later I’d developed a much keener understanding of the world at large (not to mention my personal limitations around farm fences) and thanked Mom for her timeless wisdom.
Today, I’d like to ask CQ readers an important question: Is there an easier, more efficient approach to learning life’s lessons—preferably a way that’s a little less painful than choosing ‘the hard way’ every single time? There is an old saying that goes: those who won’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In other words, our success in any endeavor is not dependant upon never making any mistakes at all but rather from learning from those mistakes and making adjustments accordingly. So, it is possible to use our knots, whelps and cuts effectively—that is if we use them to build up our powers of insight. We can translate our past triumphs and tragedies into an intuitive compass for helping us to find those ‘hidden bridges’ over the challenges that we’ll face in the future! However, to do that it requires us to hone our powers of physical and mental observation to razor sharpness…something that doesn’t come naturally or easily. It requires us to put that skill of observation to work in ourselves and in the world around us—in essence to develop eyes that are both within and without.
The RAFIKI Principle
One of my favorite Disney movies is The Lion King. In a famous very scene (the story’s protagonist) a young lion named Simba, is talking to the jungle’s resident teacher, a baboon named Rafiki. Simba is discouraged and brooding because of some serious mistakes that he had made in his past. Suddenly without provocation the eccentric but wise primate cracks Simba over the head with his staff. Rubbing his head with his paw Simba indignantly asks why the wise baboon had hit him. Laughing Rafiki replies “it doesn’t matter—it’s in the past”. He then tells Simba that there were two things that he could do with his painful experiences. The first choice was to “run” (then with a sudden burst he swings the staff again at Simba’s head, but this time the wary young lion ducks smoothly under it) “or learn from it” the primate says with a smile and a nod.
This humorous sequence aptly demonstrates that sometimes the biggest hurdles that we face in learning the lessons from our past (and using them positively) are negative / restraining emotions. For Simba, it was guilt, but for us it could easily be fear, insecurity, resentment, apathy or shame. Human beings are the only of God’s creatures who create their own barless prisons, fabricated from the dry bones of past mistakes, shortcoming and failures and then pronounce upon themselves a life sentence. Too often we allow these negative emotions to keep us from reaching beyond ourselves and aspiring towards becoming better people. When we allow this to happen all of our suffering has been in vain because it’s led to nothing beneficial. I’ve coined the phrase “The Rafiki Principle” to remind us that we have two choices in dealing with the past: running or learning. If we choose the former then we will bear a burden that will always eat away at any progress towards growth that we make. Our lives will be like trying to fill a paper cup that has a pin-hole in the bottom. However, if we choose the latter then we use our experience as a stepping stone towards being stronger and more balanced people.
Our first goal then should be to identify the emotions, beliefs and ideas that are limiting us and deal with them. Of course I can tell you from personal example that finding and pushing aside these obstacles is a lot easier said than done. For instance, I was in my 30’s before I realized how much my parent’s divorce had negatively influenced my life. Sure, I read all the statistics about children of divorce being prone to depression, anxiety and social unbalance. But growing up I’d always told myself that my parents divorce made me tougher and smarter because I wasn’t “fettered” by the flowery view of life that “everybody else had”. Interestingly though, as an adult I suffered a painful and dehabilitating emotional breakdown that destroyed my professional career as well as a lot of my social life. For me that was my turning point. I began to analyze my life and overturn so many of the illusions and false paradigms that I harbored for decades. What I discovered was that because of my parents divorce I had an innate fear of not being secure and had thus fortified my entire life in such a way where I did not allow people to get close to me. I figured that if I didn’t “let them in” to begin with then I would never be able to be hurt by them when they eventually betrayed me. As a result I never developed the wide network of close casual or even close professional “friends” that I should have. Sure, I had relationships—but kept everyone emotionally at arm’s length.
Life is an epic play and ultimately it’s up to us whether we allow it to be told as a tragedy or a triumph. My life since my ‘Incident’ has been dedicated to hunting down and removing these emotional obstacles one by one. I am personally determined to make this section of my life more open, outgoing and compassionate than ever…to have a life that is a victory rather than a disappointment. To do this I’ve had to develop my powers of perception and awareness in regards to my challenges and circumstances. Through painstaking effort I have trained myself to focus and pay a lot more attention both the things that happen around me as well as the things that happen within me. I’ve become keenly aware of the emotional state of others as well as myself. And this has helped me to develop the SCOPE to identify and pre-empt many (especially interpersonal) difficulties before they start.
‘Opportunities’ All Around
Over the years I’ve come to understand that everyday life is a school for character development and personal mastery. It presents to us ‘opportunities’ to learn the skills and knowledge that we need in order to reach our highest potential. This happens in two primary ways: First in the forms of challenges, trials, difficulties and dead ends. (Don’t worry—we’ll have no problem identifying these because they’ll crack us over the head like Rafiki’s staff.) But the second way that life teaches us is very subtle and often hides in the quiet places of the earth away from the vain hustle-n-bustle. This is the knowledge that comes from observation of the world around us. To find this knowledge we have to be willing to walk away from our traditional thinking patterns when we come to “the river” and take the time to walk up and down the bank for a piece with open eyes. In the book of Proverbs, wisdom (i.e. knowledge gained through careful observation) is personified as an entity which “cries out” in the cities, streets and gates of every town. Furthermore, the book of Romans tells us that our Creator has encoded and woven limitless amounts of gleanable knowledge into the very fabric of the Creation itself. In other words, a “student of life” has an inexhaustible resource for learning, developing and growing. All he/she has to do is have the yielded humility needed to be granted the proper eyes to see and ears to hear.
Over time we learn that life presents its lessons to us in just the right time and just the right place. There’s an old saying in oriental philosophy that goes “When the student is ready the teacher appears”. In other words, all of the opportunities, challenges and circumstances that we currently face in life are ideal for helping to prepare us for the next level. Human beings were created and designed to grow upward in progressive steps—at first to be carried, then crawl and then walk. All of our experiences throughout life follow this pattern.
Learning to SEE the Hidden Bridges
One of the greatest inventors in history, Thomas Edison once remarked “The average person’s brain does not observe a thousandth part of what the eye observes. It is incredible how poor our powers of observation—genuine observation—are.” According to legend, Edison fired 27 of his personal assistants at his Menlo Park, New Jersey factory after they could not tell him how many trees were growing near the entrance. Each of these men had walked directly through six cherry trees every single day for six months in order to enter the factory, yet when asked, there were some who couldn’t even recall any trees being there. Edison’s business was in observing the natural principles of the world and translating them into useful inventions. He would have no place for men who minds were not willfully conditioned to perceive the world around them. Such men would miss things—important things—and that would never do.
Likewise, we should not be tolerant of a mind that runs blindly throughout its day on autopilot—reacting to every situation it comes across based on impulse or habit! We have to learn to see again if we hope to discover the hidden bridges in our lives. We must condition ourselves to become observant—open and aware—taking in and processing everything that our eyes can see rather than allowing our faculties to become snagged on whatever ‘gleaming bauble’ would try to catch our interest. (And there are so many things competing for our attention these days.)
As a ‘student of life’ we learn to instinctively look around for patterns and prompts; to ask for and then expect to be granted insight. We constantly exercise ‘stretching forth’ our awareness to search every circumstance and try to perceive both the big picture and the tiny, hidden details. As a result of constant practice we build what some might consider superhuman levels of insight, intuition and understanding of the world around them. Truly mature wisdom and its abilities are gifted in stages and take a lifetime to perfect. However, even the tiniest bit of progress can make a night and day difference in our ability to face our challenges in life, because they allow us to find those “hidden bridges” over the difficulties that we encounter in life.
An AWESOME Tool for Building SCOPE
The story that appears at the beginning of this post is taken from my personal journal. I’ve found that journal to be among my most valuable and effective tools in helping me to truly open my eyes and perceive the world. Think about it! All ‘professionals’ of any discipline—from scientists to athletes—keep meticulous journals. Why? Well, number one it helps them to approach their work with open eyes. They are responsible for creating a useful record, not only the details of their daily efforts (results of experiments, training routine etc.) but also chronicling all of the relevant data that they learn sequentially so that they eventually arrive at a breakthrough. In that way their journal formalizes the learning process and helps them to get through the learning curve more effectively because it allows their sequential knowledge to accumulate into understanding.
There’s a lot we can learn from these masters of learning. A true master leaves neither process nor progress to casual chance because too many important details could seep away—spirited away by the “birds of the air”. But rather they observe and document / ponder and scrutinize every little detail in order to constantly broaden their scope. In other words, it helps them find their hidden bridges.
I encourage everyone who truly wants to improve the quality of their life and character to keep a detailed personal journal. It makes a night and day difference. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re good at ‘expressing yourself on paper’ because the kind of journal I’m talking about is a tool for helping us to examine our lives and our selves more than it is a piece of literature. You don’t have to memorize any grammar axioms, your 9th grade English teacher is not going to show up to critique and you definitely won’t begin by writing “dear diary”. No, the kind of journal that I keep is completely informal and all business. I use it to write down the lessons and observations that I make every single day in life. This allows me to ‘store up’ personally acquired knowledge from my everyday experiences. This allows me to occasionally review both the small and large details of my life’s learning. The surprising patterns and incremental nature of what I see in my own life never ceases to amaze me. Studying your journal after a couple of years is a testament to watching the finger of God write your life story because it’s only in “hindsight” that we can see that He has ‘passed by’ and revealed Himself to us on the mount.
Personally, I distill the things that I’ve gleaned from everyday life into stories, poems, proverbs and sometimes even Character-Quest articles. This is a vitally important part of the process for me personally because it allows me to examine and meditate on every single observation in turn—to truly learn and then apply the knowledge that my day had to offer. It helps nothing important fall through the cracks. This in turn leads to even greater and more profound insights and slowly but surely reveals the subtle web of purpose that our Creator has woven into life itself. And that, my friends, is a bridge over anything.
Until next time…
(ANNOUNCEMENT: In a few short weeks the one year mission of Character-Quest will end. Hopefully, I will publish 1-2 more articles between now and then and also make an official announcement regarding our NEXT mission.)