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You Know That You're Ignorant? Lucky!

Appreciating the Spirit of "Unlearning" About Ourselves

People are often concerned about the negative impact of their ignorance. They feel it is what they don't know that will hurt them and this of course is true, to a certain extent. However, I believe that an even more subtle insidious danger than ignorance is what we think we already know but actually don't. True sensitivity and real wisdom begin with recognizing this fact.

At times we tend to be so "hard-hearted" that even when presented with contrary information, we "dig in our heals" and hold onto our opinions rather than being open enough to let in new information that may prove us wrong. I think the following story illustrates this point well. A woman suddenly stops a man walking down the street and says:

"Henry, I am so happy to see you after all these years! My, how you have changed."
"I remember you as being tall and you seem so much shorter now."
"You used to have such a dark complexion and you're so pale now."
"You were short and now you are so tall."
"Good grief how you have changed in five years!"

Finally, the man got a chance to interject a response: "But my name is not Henry!"

To which the persistent woman calmly responded, "Oh, so you have changed your name too!"

All through the history of the human race we have heard stories of people being asked to let go, unlearn, reform, renew, and accept an identity that is more in line with whom they could become rather than whom they have settled for being because of the presence of anxiety or ignorance. For instance, in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures we see how Abram is called to let go of the identity he had in order to become open to the person he could and should be (Abraham). Likewise, his wife Sarai is asked to let go of her limited sense of self to become Sarah, a woman filled with new potential.

Like them and others throughout history, we are now called to unlearn much of what we have absorbed that is untrue about ourselves and others so we can have an attitude of sensitivity. This will allow us to be open to new realities and new possibilities, and to find our own true name and identity. We can then model this for others so they can also be empowered to see and take their places of dignity in the world. There is so much blocking us from this, and some of these psychological obstacles are unfortunately vague and often subtle so take a little self-questioning which is only possible with humility and a sense of intrigue about who we could be beyond our present self-definition.

However, to give up the quest to embrace new truths and unlearn old beliefs about ourselves because of the natural difficulty all of us have to see ourselves in new unvarnished ways is unacceptable. We must persist, no matter what, if we wish to enter the peace that is underling the pain that self-discovery sometimes initially brings with it.

But part of this persistence is the willingness to ask honest, yet sometimes uncomfortable questions, such as:

1)What is the style I feel people find most wonderful in me and when do I "trip over" it? (In other words, if I am outgoing, vital and gregarious, when do I monopolize situations, avoid listening, or not allow others to share their talents?)

2)What is the one positive or negative comment I hate to hear about myself? How do I understand such a judgmental attitude?

3)When am I most judgmental of myself and others? How do I understand such a judgmental attitude?

4)What are the ways I am avoiding or refusing the love that is already around me?

5)What makes me the most anxious, stressful, and angry? And, in addition to the possibly good reasons for such reactions, what are some of the immature ones?

6)Who is the person I dislike or can't seem to get along with in most situations? What is this person inadvertently teaching me about myself that I don't want to admit?

Unlearning requires then a ruthless willingness to be open to the truth about ourselves and brings with it great rewards in self-knowledge and freedom from being bound up in our defenses or shadow. It also loosens up creative energy to experience ourselves and others in new ways.

However, to be involved in such a process also relies heavily on our ability to undertake it while simultaneously being very clear about our signature strengths, our self-love and the love of others. Without this, our self-awareness will slowly turn into self-condemnation and will be a doorway to guilt and shame rather than to knowledge and growth.

And so, unlearning also depends on our being open to the positive reactions of others, to be more tolerant with ourselves and others, and to be freer to see how our destructive games may limit our ability to receive-and therefore give-love.

Maybe the reason for this is that we have not felt loved enough in the past or because we have not seen the unconscious ways we avoid, deny, minimize, ignore, or distort the love that is really already there for us.

The ability to receive love then is a very important element in embracing unlearning as a way of seeing ourselves-including both our gifts and faults-with a sense of inquisitiveness and equanimity rather than self condemnation. To do this, mindfulness meditation helps...but that is another topic for another time. For now, rejoice when you see your ignorance (it's better than arrogance), seek to look openly what new things you might learn about yourself, and then step out to find your new place with a broader identity of who you really are.

Dr. Robert Wicks, who received his doctorate in Psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia is the author of BOUNCE: Living the Resilient Life (Oxford, 2010) as well as a book on mindfulness (PRAYERFULNESS: Awakening to the Fullness of Life) and is on the faculty of Loyola University Maryland.

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