Learn Something

A weird thing, fear: it’s what we knew as children, alone in our beds, terrified that the monster beneath would jump out and eat us up. It’s what we courted as older kids, on roller coasters and in speeding cars, or at scary or violent movies.  Even as adults, fear made us feel more fully ‘alive’ in a way we didn’t often feel in our safe American lives.

We love this manufactured fear, the way it keeps real fear at bay, but tell ya what: It does nothing for sadness, in whose dark kingdom we seem to have been dwelling for this whole last decade.

There’s a great passage in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a coming-of-age story of the legendary King Arthur, once an ordinary boy called Wart. That Wart is the rightful heir to the throne of England nobody knows, except the wise old wizard Merlin, who appears one day, with his pointy hat and his moon-and-stars cloak, to walk him toward adulthood.

Later in the story, he comes upon his young charge in a state of sadness and tells him this:

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then: to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting… 

Me I’d like to learn  Italian, like my friend Bobbie is doing. Or Physics, since I somehow missed Physics in high school.  Or maybe embroidery which I haven’t done since I tried stitching my 5th grade teacher’s initials onto a pretty handkerchief for her and ended up sewing them tightly to the lap of my skirt. 

But I love the idea that learning focuses you outward – not inward toward your own small self, but outward, toward the intricate beauty of this world, and all those other worlds beyond it.

How many were there did Carl Sagan used to say?  “Billions?” We made fun of him but he was a cool guy who died too young and Cosmos was a really wonderful show. Remember it?


8 thoughts on “Learn Something

  1. Buon giorno, Terry! Molti auguri—oops! in your quest to learn Italian! (That’s as far as I could go, but I have a beginner’s textbook I’d be glad to give you.)
    Marcia

    1. Just might have to take you up on that Marcia. so far the only words I know are Ho Vomitato which I learned in a 2-dollar phrasebook I bought in Florence. Not much use for a phrase like that in Italy where the food is so good!

  2. Recently there was a TV program narrated by Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist. He endeavored to show that there is no god, that the universe happened by natural means. Well, I never understood physics in school, and got myself out of that beginner’s class in a hurry. So, try as I might, I didn’t understand Hawking’s theory, which had something to do with a black hole and a nano-something sparking out of it. This program went by me too fast — I need more time to “get” it. Did any of you happen to see this show?

  3. That’s the bit of “The Once and Future King” that I always pass on to folks in retirement cards, graduation cards, sabbatical leave-taking cards, etc. So well said and so true!

  4. I think learning, and anticipating the delicious future that awaits if we are willing to work to make it happen, trumps nostalgia every time and smothers disappointment.

    Since you can’t go back anyway, look forward, ask questions, tackle new skills, revel in the new. That’s how I’ve coped with disappointment and loss.

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