Rote Learning

Life is a school, but we keep trying to avoid the curriculum.

-- Ram Dass

Soon after I retired, I got a call from my mother, who was then still living on her own in Arizona. She told me she had fallen and asked if I could take her to the doctor. She explained that her knee had given out, and she was on the floor of her living room. Luckily, she was within reach of a phone, but she was obviously confused. Trying to stay calm, I reminded her that I lived 2,500 miles away in Connecticut. I told her to dial 911. "How do I do that?" she asked. Even as I called for help, I realized it was no longer safe for my mother to remain on her own.

When I took early retirement, my plans did not include becoming the caregiver for my elderly mother. But that's what happened, reminding me yet again that one's life is only nominally one's own. My brother and sisters did not think I was temperamentally suited for this assignment, and they had a point. I was not a notably patient person, particularly with my mother. And yet I was the one she had called when she needed help, and none of my siblings was then in a position to step in. Fortunately, by this time I understood that the lessons life has to teach are not always of one's own choosing. Patience is not simply a virtue; it is a skill, and it can be learned.

I have found it to be a rule that we must accept every circumstance we encounter in life and learn from it; otherwise, it repeats. I do not mean we have to like every circumstance we find ourselves in, nor do I subscribe to the New-Age nostrum that we must always say "yes" to life. Sometimes the lesson to be learned is when to say "no." Acceptance means we are willing to deal with a situation on its own terms rather than try to ignore it or pretend it is something other than what it is. We do not give way to blame and self-pity. If we fail to master the lesson that life has to teach us in a particular situation, we will find sooner or later that circumstances conspire to bring us back to the point where we got stuck the last time around.

This process of rote learning operates impersonally but not without purpose, like the law of gravity. With gravity, if you step over the edge, you can expect to fall rather than fly. There is no judgment in it, although that's what certain situations may feel like. Actions have consequences; that is all. The universe points in one direction, a strong yet subtle gravitational pull toward God. There is nothing to stop us from turning away or wandering off. But if we do, we eventually find we have circled back to our point of departure. In some ways, life is a lot like purgatory, only you don't have to die to get there. And as any Roman Catholic theologian will cheerfully tell you, purgatory lies on the road to heaven, not on the road to hell.

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