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Learn Something

It recently occurred to me that I had not learned something without intending to in a while.

I read an amount of stuff that at the very least is, in size, non-trivial. It's good stuff, real stuff in the sense of stuff—intellectual furnishing. But I'd gone to class or the web to get it, syllabi to find it. I know what I'm getting into when I get the stuff, and it's not as if I don't want the “History of the Peloponnesian War” stuffed between two folds in my cortical living room, but I put it there on purpose. For what purpose? Enrichment? Self-empowerment? It's unclear, but in a way irrelevant. That's not the point. The point is, that like a stack of coffee table books including “Venuses of the Uffizi” and “Armenian Folk Dance Through the Ages” prominently displayed on a knotty table in the center of a den, it's not there by accident, but it might as well be.

Since reading Mandy Len Catron’s syrupy, if insightful, article highlighting why and how we might benefit from conceiving the process of “falling” in love as a deliberate, as opposed to unwitting, act, I've been thinking about how flipping my notions of activity and passivity may affect the important things in my life—especially concerning the process of learning.

My instinct is to regard learning as intensely active. I’m unconvinced by the collegiate trope that a substantial minority of my learning occurs during dining hall conversations, uninformed section dialogue, or mandatory fun sessions. And I wonder if even my tastes and values are not just the necessary results of my consciously spending time thinking about things or practicing things or doing things. I get stuff by doing things, not by things having been done. 

I want the stuff of learning, so I buy it with my attention and time. I consider the purposefulness of knowledge stuff before I acquire it, but even that's not the important bit. That process lies in a domain like that of cover letters and course evaluations: It's necessary but often superficial, people will always make it out to be more important than it really is, and it doesn't especially help my understanding of why “doing” learning may be better or worse than its passive reflection.

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When I think about what I might have learned without thinking—or why that might be what I want to start doing without doing—I'm inexorably drawn to storytelling.

One cannot actively learn stories that matter, yet somehow they can still be learned. Sure, I can pursue opportunity, and I can develop favorable expectations for something interesting to happen, but that's not how real stories work. That's how tourism works. That's how factoid vomit works. The stories that matter are not those that are purchased, but those that simply happen and happen to stick. 

The wizened have stories. We anthropomorphize gnarled trees, copper clay roads, and marble halls as storied, because stories have happened to them, and, if we plead, they may tell them to us.

Great men and women have stories. Fathers and mothers console with them, villains strike fear with them. Spielberg’s Lincoln calms and forces thoughtfulness onto others with them. Sojourner Truth, a woman who like no other had the “subtle power which we call personal presence” according to Harriet Beecher Stowe, told her own sacerdotal tales inspired by experiences with Christ that presented themselves to her. And even when reciting traditional hymns, they “seemed to be fused in the furnace of her feelings and come out recrystallized as a production of her own”.

Not all of us have the pleasure of eternal life through posterity or of having revelation thrust upon us. But the stories are still there, looking for minds to settle in.

The experiences that help carve stories are like Machiavelli's fortune. They may ask of us to be impetuous and open to new circumstances; we can seduce them and work with them, and perhaps we will be taught something. But a blind belief that, if only we try, we can fully understand their ways and make them bend for us by simply accumulating enough knowledge stuff, will keep us unstoried. One must orient himself to fortune without thinking that he can make it his slave. We do what we can deliberately, and the rest we learn to live with. 

The moral of this story is not to “just” slow down or to “live your life”  as we are so often patronized by mildly pressured dilettantes and the autoerotic restoring-your-faith-in-humanity meme ocean. Complacency kills, and a life with too much of it will leave you like the dehydrated pulp forced out an industrial juicer with teeth like the Breath of God.

But the choice of passivity is not one of complacency—it is one of vigilance without action. Stories may not be sought out, but they have a knack of not happening upon the lazy.

I don't have many stories yet, and I think it's my fault. So now, I'm going to keep my peripheral vision on high alert, my ears pricked up, and try to start learning without learning. 

Vivek A. Banerjee ‘16, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House.

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