Let me say this up-front to get it out of the way: discomfort sucks.
Now let’s talk about learning.
Here’s what the folks at the Oxford Dictionaries have to offer:
1. the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught
1. gain or acquire knowledge of or skill in (something) by study, experience, or being taught
I make no secret of the fact that I was not an ideal K-12 student. I was pretty good with the K part, but art and gym aside, the next 12 years were messy.
Like so many kids, particularly boys, I was easily and happily distracted, and not much for sitting still. I’m not sure how I managed to make it through, though I think a combination of a close circle of friends, the Verona High School Ski Team – and an assumption that there was no alternative – provided a modicum of focus that carried me to graduation.
I’d also adopted my high school principal, Tony Iuso, as my preferred guidance counselor. We had a warm relationship, the man believed in me, and I had no intention of letting him down.
As I reflect on those high school years, it’s clear that I constructed a path through a swamp of academic, to say nothing of adolescent, discomfort.
Having been finally set free, the strangest thing happened: I became a dyed-in-the-wool learning junkie.
Here’s the thing: while learning is one of my happy places, it is not a comfortable place.
I’m not just talking academics. My wife and I have been together more than half our lives, and few (if any) real inflection points of learning and growth in our relationship have been the stuff of comfiness. Same goes for pivotal moments of expansion as a leader or coach. I spend a good percentage of time, energy, and focus on my men’s work – a passionate pursuit that demands I show up and constantly learn. While it’s crazy fulfilling, leading cohorts of men through their own swamps of discomfort is not comfortable… and at any given moment, I’m learning at least as much as anyone else, even in my own programs.
It’s the nature of the beast, a gift that keeps on giving.
With all that as background, I have to wonder what’s up with the push from more conservative circles to insulate students against discomfort.
To be clear, I’m not talking about being physically and psychologically safe in learning environments. Those bits are vital and non-negotiable.
At the same time, learning, particularly as kids grow more developmentally sophisticated, requires challenging and unlearning more simplistic, early versions of what came before. That applies across the board, from seemingly charming stories of the first American Thanksgiving to the painful, raw brutality of the Trail of Tears, from simple arithmetic to algebra and calculus, from easy reading to Shakespeare and Moby Dick.
Every time the learning bar is raised, new levels of subtlety, complexity, and yes, discomfort, are introduced into the equation.
From a whole-person development perspective, it’s important that we be challenged to think critically and creatively. It’s equally important that we develop the ability to feel critically and creatively, expanding our capacity to stay present to, and curious about, our emotions.
One of the things I love about the work I get to do with men is that, in digging into the uncomfortable shadows, into the dark mud of shame and the full spectrum of avoided emotions, we inevitably discover resources, power, magic, and finally, what I can only describe as peace. We won’t get to that deeper peace by denying or going around the darkness. Rather, we can only get there by going into and through the shadows, seeing them for what they are, experiencing them fully.
It’s rigorous work. More importantly, it’s honest, vulnerable, the kind required if one is ever going to cross the threshold into conscious adulthood.
I’m not suggesting that high school kids be subjected to deep inner shadow work. But just as all children inevitably find out the (momentarily) distressing fact that Santa Clause isn’t real, just as they must be honestly informed when a loved one dies, we can and must – at appropriate ages – teach them the full, painful truths of history.
Truth doesn’t always, nor should it, feel good. It will, however, set you free to experience different perspectives, and allow you learn to take responsibility for what you feel.
That’s what conscious, responsible adults do, discomfort and all.
Who in their right mind wouldn’t want future generations to become conscious adults?