Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Cycle of Learning

Learning doesn't happen all at once. We aren't like Neo in The Matrix able to have information downloaded into our brain so that we can learn Kung Fu in an instant (though that is my deepest and truest desire in life). Instead we have to earn our knowledge.

Moses thought he was living a charmed life. He didn't know much about the slaughter of children and the trip down the river that started his existence. He just knew that he'd grown up in a palace as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He got that he was Hebrew -- possibly from his appearance -- but not much more than that. So when he saw an Egyptian and a Hebrew he decided to take matters into his own hands. He beat up the Egyptian and killed him. Instead of being celebrated as a hero he was shunned and ended up leaving the country for forty years.

As I'm writing this the world is mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela. He died a hero due to his peaceful work toward change. But he went to prison for acts of sabotage as a part of a militant resistance group opposed to apartheid in South Africa. Over the next twenty-seven years he languished in prison waiting for the end to racial oppression and it appeared that he wouldn't be able to do anything about it.

But were the years that Moses spent in the wilderness and the years that Mandela spent in prison wasted?

Here's where we need to look at the cycle of learning. We go through different steps to acquire knowledge and make it a part of our lives. Alan Mumford says the four steps of learning are Doing, Reflecting, Concluding and Planning.

When you do something you have an experience, it affects you, but you aren't sure exactly how. Your senses are involved. Moses killed the Egyptian. Mandela joined a militant group. Action is often the beginning of learning.

The next step is reflecting on the process. This isn't fun and it can take a long time. In some ways it took decades for Mandela and Moses to reflect on what they'd done. During reflection both emotion and reason work to help us process what happened and what the results were.

You shouldn't really jump to conclusions (even if you have a mat). They are hard-fought prizes that you get from wrestling with your emotions and reason. Mandela concluded that peace was a better way than violence. Moses concluded that trust in God was better than trust in himself. But they didn't make those conclusions easily or quickly.

After coming to a conclusion you can start planning what to do next. Here's where the cycle loops back on itself, because enacting the plan leads to another experience which starts the whole process over again. But without engaging in the process, without working through the cycle of learning there is no growth or change.

It's fun to play the what-if game and think it would be cool to instantly know Kung Fu, but if we don't learn it, if the knowledge is just downloaded into our brains, then we aren't prepared to use it. If I instantly knew Kung Fu, I wouldn't have the understanding of when to use certain moves or how my body would react to them. I wouldn't have the necessary muscles or calluses to keep myself from getting hurt. I wouldn't have the emotional calm to know how to avoid violence. In short I would lose just about any fight, badly.

It's easy enough to look at Moses' story as a series of before and after pictures. He was terrible and killed an Egyptian (before), he went to be a shepherd and talked to a bush (after). But we don't look at the hard-fought, decades-long process of learning that transformed him from a rash, prideful, youth into the leader of a nation. We don't often focus on the transformation that happened within Mandela during his nearly three decades in prison because that's not a fun story to tell.

But that's the true story. It's the story we can follow. It's the story we need to learn, and relearn.


If you could instantly have any knowledge, what would it be?

If other people could instantly have one piece of knowledge that you already possess (and be able to pull it off) which one would make you the most upset? Or to think about it from another perspective, what have you learned that you are most proud of knowing?

Why do you think most people don't focus on the time that Moses spent in the wilderness and Mandela spent in prison?

What helps you move through the cycle of learning? What holds you back in learning?

Why do you think God made it so we have to learn the way we do?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance

Other than the fact that it's kind of an awesome band name, cognitive dissonance is also something we deal with on a regular basis.

But before we get to that we should talk about Peter. Peter was one of Jesus' three main guys. They spent a lot of time together, went on special trips to mountains to meet Jesus' friends, and in general got the most of Jesus' teachings. Peter wasn't afraid to jump in with both feet, even when it was literally jumping into the water and sinking. But he was also the only one besides Jesus to walk on water.

Peter was quick to act, but also quick to react. We get the story about Peter in Acts 10 being invited to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. The Gentiles -- basically anyone who isn't Jewish -- were considered unclean by the Jews. Worse than that, if the Jews ate a meal or stayed in the house of a Gentile they would become unclean too. So good Jews would avoid both Gentiles and unclean food. Peter was a good Jew.

But he had a dream about unclean food. It looked like a giant sheet and it was filled with all sorts of food. Peter was hungry and there was probably some bacon on that sheet. He heard a voice telling him to eat the bacon. Peter, being a good Jew, said, "NO!" But the voice told him that it wasn't okay for him to call something unclean that God had made clean.


At that point some Gentiles came to invite Peter to go and spend time at the house of Cornelius. Peter experienced cognitive dissonance. He had been taught, his whole life, that Gentiles and non-kosher food would make him unclean. Now he had this message that food and people weren't unclean.

Cognitive dissonance is painful. It's difficult to figure out which is right, what you've always known or what you just learned. Having to contradictory beliefs in your mind at the same time is uncomfortable. Our natural inclination is to figure out how to resolve the dissonance and avoid any more pain. Sometimes we'll use numbing techniques to avoid the feelings of discomfort or we might avoid people or situations that make us aware of the dissonance. It's just easier that way.

Peter went up to the town of Antioch, north of Judea, and spent time with the church there. He would eat and worship with the Gentile Christians. Paul came around to say, "Hi." While Paul was there Peter kept doing what he was doing, but then some other people came up from Jerusalem, some Jews that made Peter feel uncomfortable.

So Peter quit hanging out with the Gentiles and only spent time with the Jews. His cognitive dissonance got so painful that he did whatever he could to remove the pain. He avoided his friends and went back on what he had learned because it was uncomfortable.

Now, lest you get all mad at Peter, I'm sure that you've done something similar in the past. I know I have. It's okay as long as we don't keep running away all the time.

In some ways cognitive dissonance is like getting out of the hot tub and into the pool. At first it's really uncomfortable and you want to stop. You want to just go back and get in the hot tub again. It's warm and comfortable over there and your big toe is freezing as you dip it into the pool. But, if you keep going and stick with it you can get used to the pool and then you can have fun playing Marco Polo (which is way less fun in the hot tub).

Peter had gotten up to his shins in the pool when the group from Jerusalem came to town. He got cold and ran back over to the hot tub. Paul jumped out, grabbed him, and threw him into the pool again. After the initial shock he eventually got used to it.

So, you might be thinking that cognitive dissonance is awesome and you should supersize your portion. Probably not. That would be like jumping from a hot tub into the North Atlantic, not only would it be really uncomfortable, but it could also be harmful.

If we look at Peter we see him learning to accept Samaritans from Jesus -- they're half-Jewish -- and then he stays with a Gentile, but only years later. Then, years after that, he has his run-in with Paul in Antioch. It's not until years after that when he starts leading the church in Rome (a place chock full of Gentiles). He didn't go straight from fishing and being called by Jesus to leading the church in Rome. God took him on a journey of change that allowed his cognitive dissonance to resolve over time.

How did you feel when Ben Affleck was announced as the next Batman? Why do you think a lot of people were upset with that choice?

What have you changed your mind about in the past? What was the process like? What is comfortable or uncomfortable?

What have been sources of cognitive dissonance for you? Relationships? Information? Art?

What journey of cognitive dissonance do you think God is taking you on right now?