Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Will I, or others around me, come through this time of Covid-19 any wiser? It is commonly acknowledged that difficult, even traumatic experiences can lead to insightful perspectives on life. Think how Nelson Mandela's years in prison contributed to his later political achievements. However, difficulties in life do not always lead to wisdom but can create resentment or fearfulness. The question arises, what makes the difference between truly learning from difficult experiences - or not?
Professor Judith Gluck of Alpen-Adria University in Austria is a leading researcher into this question. Why do some people learn from experience and get wiser over time, while others don't? She suggests five principles that support such learning. At the end of this extraordinary year, I am finding this an interesting list to reflect on:
1. capacity to manage uncertainty and uncontrollability
2. openness to life and communication; curiosity about views that differ from one's own
3. reflectivity, including willingness to acknowledge one’s mistakes and limitations
4. empathy and compassion
5. emotional sensitivity towards oneself and others
Recently, I heard of a group of women with a wide age-range, who live together in community. As part of a conversation exploring their differing perspectives on the unfolding pandemic, they did an activity together in which each one positioned themselves along an imaginary line. One end of the line represented "I am extremely anxious of catching Covid, fearing I would probably die" and the other "I am not personally worried about my safety". Seeing where each person stood helped them to recognise that each had a different perspective. By reflecting on their differing priorities they found greater sympathy towards each other, which helped them to negotiate the many practical and emotional difficulties presented by living with the virus.
As 2020 draws to a close, I hope that each of us can draw something from what we are going through. Did I make an effort to be less irritable? Or become a little more patient, or more truthful, with the people around me? Did the slower pace of life support me to reflect more on issues I would normally avoid? Did I notice, more than ever, the nourishment that comes from nature? My wish is that we can refrain from allowing disappointments to lead to cynicism and hopelessness, and that we are able to learn from our mistakes - and set our sights on creating a better future, together.