Who are you learning from?

We learn most from those whose views are most unlike our own.

Do you agree?

I would answer, “It depends,” but over the years I have become more convinced that there is great value in deliberately seeking the opinions of people whose views, I anticipate, conflict with my own.

Ten years ago, I attended a weekend sustainability symposium on an island in Howe Sound with about fifty other people.  We started the weekend with introductions – who we were, where we were from, and what we hoped to get from the weekend.

As is often the case in situations where fifty people respond essentially to the same questions, the responses sounded similar.  Except one.  The individual, dressed in visibly filthy cotton trousers – which I deemed hardly appropriate for a weekend being outdoors – and a tan trench coat – equally embedded with dirt – stepped forward and introduced himself as Derrick Jensen, from an unceded territory in California.  His unkempt hair and unshaven face added to the, “I don’t care about the way I look,” appearance.  I remember all of these details, all of these judgements, to this day.

It turned out that Derrick Jensen was invited to the symposium to catalyse conversations.  The organizers felt that his perspective would stimulate discussions, whether people agreed with his views or not.

Put simply, Jensen argues for the deconstruction of civilization.  By any means necessary.

Such a view put him in contrast with others in attendance, some of whom were more pacifist in their activism.

I learned that Jensen authored many books, and after listening to his thoughtful views, his passion for urgent change to live more sustainably, his value of learning from cultures who have managed – and manage – to live more sustainability than “western” cultures, I ended up reading many of them:  A Language Older than Words, Walking on Water, and most profoundly, Endgame, Volumes One and Two, where he articulates the means to the end of living sustainably.  

I did not always agree with his views as they often exceeded my comfort level, but because they exceeded my views, they stretched and clarified my thinking.  Even when my beliefs were not stretched, my understanding was.

His thoughts have profoundly effected my beliefs about how to live and more than any other experience, encountering Derrick Jensen has made me more open-minded.  The judgements I had about his appearance have long been replaced with admiration: his tired clothing was an indication he did not want to burden the environment with buying many new things.  He had the courage to withstand judgement from others, live his beliefs and change minds.  With his words.  With his clothes.  With his actions.

I recently stumbled upon a blog written by an “unschooler.”  I occasionally bristled at the blog’s criticisms of public education, something I believe in and dedicate a large part of my life to.  Soon, I realized though that bristling was not particularly useful and I recalled my experience with Jensen.  Although I disagreed with many of the views shared in the blog, as I disagreed with some of Jensen’s views, the ideas in the blog were thoughtfully presented and thus worth listening to and learning from.

There is more purpose in finding the nuggets of truth that stretch thinking than simply being frustrated that the author seems to have got many things – in my opinion(!) – wrong.

I feel lucky to have stumbled upon numerous people, books, blogs and documentaries that challenge my thinking and beliefs but have realized I could and should spend less time stumbling and more time deliberately seeking views I predict challenge my assumptions.

Who are you learning form that challenges you?


2 thoughts on “Who are you learning from?

  1. Hi Scott,

    Your words have brought me back to that same weekend. I, too, attended that symposium – although I don’t think our paths crossed a lot that weekend. Funny thing, I don’t remember anything about Derrick’s appearance. But I do remember the uneasy feeling I had when he spoke of dismantling civilization. I also remember sitting around a campfire circle with Derrick asking us the question, “what are your gifts?” When we all politely and unassumingly answered, he called us out, claiming that our answers were too Canadian and ‘BS.’ He claimed that if we didn’t truly know what our gifts are, what we are passionate about and where our leverage points are, how could we enact any real change?

    I just found my notes from that conference and my thoughts about the gifts I had to offer and what I wanted at that time – the first line in my reflection is ” I don’t want to bring down civilization.” However, Derrick did push my thinking, and from our conversations that weekend, a colleague and I started a Sustainability Committee at school and looked for leverage points to enact change in our community using our “gifts.”

    Although, I still felt unsettled (I even feel that uneasiness now thinking back to that weekend) so I read more of Derrick’s writings and also went to see him give talks on two other occasions. I brought friends from work and my Masters program and we had many discussions about Derrick’s ideas. His ideas against hope – hope being a longing for a future condition over which we have no control – were also unsettling. I agreed with the notion that just hoping can remove agency and action; however, I also work with young children and adults, have children of my own and did not agree with abandoning hope. Nevertheless, more discussions and extensions of my thinking occurred, leading to my work on hope and the environment with one of my colleagues and professors.

    So yes, I think that we learn from others who think differently than ourselves. Perhaps we learn to reflect on our own assumptions/judgments and challenge their validity – we expand our world view. But I think we also learn to listen to and to question the uneasy feelings that emerge in these conversations and perhaps extend and enhance our own differing thoughts and actions – making our understanding of ourselves and our passions even stronger.

    Thanks for the reminder of that weekend – an unsettling time that was perhaps the catalyst for much of my career path from that point forward.

    • Thank you for commenting. What a powerful weekend indeed. Just “stumbled upon” this quote from Anwar Sadat:
      “He who cannot change the very basic fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality, and will never, therefore, make any progress.” Doing so can be unsettling.

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