Tuesday, July 02, 2013

What Have You Learned So Far?

Often, I suffer from this sudden feeling -- almost like a panic attack -- of blankness. I ask myself the question: 'What have you learnt so far?' And I can't remember anything that I consider worth a mention. Most of the things I seem to know appear too easy, too natural, too unavoidable for me to have learned. As if the gravity of my destiny took me through a path I didn't decide for myself. Whatever learning that happened seem to be dust on the road that stuck to my feet. Most importantly, the context in which I can demonstrate my mastery of any subject, or their applicability to an important problem, are ridiculously specialised and elaborate.

Language? What except a few grammatical constructs, a lexicon of memorised words, a cunning (not-so-respectable) insight into idioms -- what sounds fashionable and appropriate?
Art? Ha! What are you, man?
Math and Science? Try to remember one thing useful you have succeeded in doing with your knowledge in science.
Programming? What but a few ifs, and elses, and brackets and semicolons? How many people have used the programs you have written?
Engineering? What have you built or fixed with your own hands so far?
Worldly knowledge? Look at the shabby, absent-minded, nervous misfit that you are!
Philosophy and Spirituality? How many of the millions of seconds you have lived were truly truly blissful, by the way?

Please don't equate the above feeling with a feeling of worthlessness. I don't feel worthless at all. For example, there are many worthwhile things I have learnt to do: to make the bed, to do the laundry and grocery, drive family and friends around in my car/2-wheeler, purchasing travel/movie-tickets online, entertain people by chit-chatting and cracking non-sense jokes. So, I don't suffer from any feeling of worthlessness. It's just that, there are these moments when I feel seriously doubtful if any of the things I like to call my learning or education or whatever has added even a penny of worth into my real life. My education allows me to shuttle around in various professional positions, some of which are at least so-called respectable and/or somewhat high-paying: a good vehicle of subsistence. They allow me to spin out conversations which sound wise at times. I can boast of knowing probably 20 programming languages in which I can write hardly anything more significant than 'Hello world!' programs. I know 6-7 natural languages in which the most complex communication I am probably able to do is that of my inadequate knowledge of that language: 'kannada gottila!'  (I don't know kannada)

Part of the above state of mind is surely due to my somewhat low-in-confidence personality. Part of it is probably due to my lack of comprehension of how complex the world and the life is so that I even start expecting to see a direct consequence of my learning attaining some sort of a closure on my and others' lives.

But a major part of it -- I have recently realised -- is due to my own forgetfulness. I seem to have somehow forgotten how much struggle it's been to learn whatever I know -- however trivial and inconsequential it might be in the big scheme of things.

I have enjoyed some recent opportunities of teaching youngsters things that my CV says that I might be knowing something about. Math, Electrical engineering, computer science including programming, language and communication skills. More than anything else, I have learnt to appreciate and get reminded of all the trials one must go through to learn such little things which, after learning, invariably appear trivial to us. Here's a list of things which appear deceptively simple, but are learned through tremendous hard work and even luck. For some strange reason, they surely don't end up in the kitty of a large majority of the population, unfortunately.

Logic. The ability to use existing knowledge to deduce or induce further inferences. To understand about theorems and proofs, about possibilities and probabilities, in a day-to-day sort of way. 
Communication. The ability to express a thought as it exists in one's mind. To listen and interpret what other's are conveying as they mean to.
Concentration. The fundamental experience of being in a flow while thinking of or doing one and only one thing. And to enjoy it. It brings out the real power from inside. It helps you to not get tired even in an intensely effortful activity. It makes you want to have a repeat experience thus enabling the habit of hard work to set in, increasing efficiency and effectiveness in the long run. 
Alertness. To be aware of the world around. For example, It helps manoeuvring safely in a complex traffic condition and making timely decisions in crisis situations. This also gives us the ability to enjoy little experiences and find value in moments which would be a drudgery for most.
Abstraction. The ability to think of thoughts, ideas, dreams, patterns, as real entities. It allows you to do things which are distinct from the knee-jerk thing that any beast would do, that of taking the path of least intellectual resistance. It allows you to set up businesses. It allows you to try and serve the society. It enables to you model and design complex systems. It gives you the courage to cut open a body and fix an ailing heart. It allows you to compose concertos and visualise impressionistic or surrealistic paintings and write novels. It enables you to thing big. It prepares you to be curious and experimentative.
Open-mindedness. The ability to accept, appreciate and be comfortable with the different ways people and situations are. This enables us to take genuine interest in and engage with people apparently different from us and profit from the numerous good things they bring with them in a win-win way.
Self-awareness. The ability to turn one's eyes on oneself, to examine, question, study oneself. The ability to gather the instruments -- scientific, philosophical, sociological, anthropological, spiritual -- that allow such a study to be done. This gradually grows the comfort with the good and bad things about oneself, and find virtue and meaning in life in presence of failures, losses, weaknesses and vices.

I don't mean to say that I am an expert in all the above. But surely I have got to the point that I know that they exist and they are very powerful. They affect the way you live your life and influence others'. I also understand that it's probably vain for me or anybody to try and assess the value of one's learning through the knowledge of science, arts, or engineering. These, with all their success, are too specialised to matter in the general context of an individual's life. There are rather these other things which are listed above, whose value isn't restricted to specific contexts and settings, but are generally applicable in all walks of life, and any setting.


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