Commitments, Contradictions and Experiential Learning 101

Article by Susan Cousineau

Susan Cousineau

Susan Cousineau

Well, it’s been a few months. Since my last post, I completed my Permaculture Design Certificate in Jordan and spent my summer first working on a permaculture farm on Denman Island, then on a small start-up organic farm in Armstrong BC (where, in fact, I remain quite contentedly for the moment). I started off charging forward with the joyful prospect of heaping permaculture skills onto my academic background in evolutionary ecology. Heady stuff.

I just want to run out and do everything at once: designing sites, building swales and hugelkultur beds, harvesting water, and basically getting down-and-dirty adding hands-on work to my list of experience. As many of us do, I tend to fall into the classic trap of trying to do everything at once; and to just keep adding skills and experience(s) rather than develop existing ones.

Geoff Lawton, one of the founders of the permaculture movement, teaches the Berkley compost method at  permaculture course in Jordan.

Geoff Lawton, one of the founders of the permaculture movement, teaches the Berkley compost method at permaculture course in Jordan.

This summer was no exception. While I did add a heap-load of skills to my repertoire (and work on some muscles and a tan), I’ve been struggling to process what the few months have meant to me in terms of learning, personal growth, professional growth, and so on.

Some themes keep re-emerging::

 1) Test what you “know” by doing things. Do something. Do anything. The learning is in the doing, not in what feels like “learning”. As a scholar I’m great at getting caught in this trap: the potential for further learning is endless. It’s the doing that needs to be plugged in to make the learning stick.

2) Commitment. Choose something. Anything. But do it, keep moving forward, and all the things you were trying to choose between will either fall away, or fall into the framework of what you commit to. I kept getting hit over the head with this one this year. Everyone from my friends and family to distant voices of past exes to a radio show host used words and phrases like “making a commitment”, “setting down roots,” and “choosing a focus.” I learned a little more about why these phrases keep resonating with me; but also that sticking to an overarching commitment can result in conflicts between the minor goals (e.g. stay in one place and build on basic farming skills, versus drive across Canada and the US on a 6-week road-trip to learn about some alternative approaches to food security and production). And that contradictions are okay. Which leads to . . .

3) We are all full of contradictions. Recently CBC radio host Brent Bambury was discussing with director Errol Morris his documentary “The Unknown Known” on Donald Rumsfeld. Morris was reflecting that Rumsfeld seemed to have little comprehension of the magnitude of his decisions or influence during his time in office; that he seemed to frequently contradict himself without any awareness of having done so. Bambury goes on to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” He then rephrased this to: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and to know and acknowledge that you are doing so.” I guess that tells me I have a great mind, because I can never seem to move forward for the number of contradictory thoughts guiding my decisions! But recognizing the contradictions, and choosing which is more (or less) important to you, is part of life and successful learning.

Trying out the authentic camel-riding nomadic life-style in Jordan.

Trying out the authentic camel-riding nomadic life-style in Jordan.

4)    Understanding is dependent on the perspective you choose from which to view an experience. For example, looking back on the last few months, I could choose to view them from a perspective either of success or failure. First, I learned a lot, made some wonderful friends, spent a lot of time working outside, ejected some logistical fallacies and developed a much greater sense of practicality. On the other hand, I didn’t gain any financial ground, and feel like I’m about where I started in terms of gaining security, stability, forward direction, and so on. Either point of view could be taken as equally valid. Holding those two contradictory possibilities in mind is important so that I avoid deluding myself into a false sense of security that “everything works out” (sometimes it just doesn’t); or into an equally destructive sense of failure that “nothing ever works out” (sometimes it does, it just takes a little longer, or comes about in unexpected ways). Reality is a slippery fish!

Looking back I recognize the optimism of someone with a lot of ideas – and ideals – and not a great deal of time spent putting those ideas into the ground. In all honesty, after more than half a year, I still don’t have any kind of feeling like I’ve “gotten it together” or am ready to offer anything like a usable product to the world – but I do have a more grounded understanding of my own knowledge and experience gaps.

Along with that understanding came a greater humility, and simultaneously a greater confidence in my willingness to try things, watch them fail, try again, and keep working on learning. Things happen more slowly than we’d like them to. Our ideas, and ideals, exceed our abilities. That’s the point.  Otherwise we’d be stagnating. Physically putting our ideas and experience to the test is ultimately – for me, at least – the only way to go.