Thursday August 28th 2014

Loneliness of Learning

Bruegel, Pieter de Oude, "Landscape with Icarus"
Bruegel, Pieter de Oude, "Landscape with Icarus"

I’m at a seaside resort somewhere in the Aegean. I’ve just visited the Temple of Apollo today. Built 2,700 years ago, the temple was surrounded by stone blocks full of inscriptions in classical Greek, which of course I cannot read. I kicked myself why I haven’t devoted the time in the past to learn this ancient language. How wonderful it would’ve been to read these ancient “hardcover books” chiseled into granite.

While ruminating about my self-inflicted misfortune, my thoughts shifted to the loneliness of learning.

Yes, I felt lonely since I couldn’t share my sense of loss (not knowing Greek) with anyone else. Who cares about classical Greek anymore? Not anyone I know. This is the age of iPod, iPad, and checking your text messages five times a minute, isn’t it?

But I realized that even if we lived tens of thousands of years ago, learning would still be a very lonely enterprise, for 2 reasons.

(1) Learning means leaving where you are, leaving the safe confines of your home, and sailing for someplace you’ve never been before. So by definition, you end up in territory that you know nothing about. You don’t have any friends there. No family. On the contrary, the inhabitants of the new domain usually don’t want you there. But by sheer persistence you shoulder your way in. The act of learning is exhilarating since it feels like taking up wings and being reborn. But the cost is your new loneliness. This is the PULL factor at work.

(2) Learning means you leave behind the people with whom you’ve shared almost everything and become a stranger to them, in tiny steps. This is the PUSH factor of loneliness. You literally end up with having no time for your loved ones since reading, writing, learning takes so much time. Famous authors dedicate their books to their families for  a very good reason — they know they’ve hurt them by leaving them alone for all those hours, days, and years that it took them to write that book.

So is learning an act of heroism in the face of insurmountable obstacles or a futile act of self-aggrandizement? I believe it is both. I’ll return to this topic soon. What I know is, the heroes are as lonely as the fools, thanks to the built-in contradictions of the learning process.

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© 2010 – 2011, Gary Karbon. All rights reserved.

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