Tag Archive: experience


Experience, Painful Lack

“You don’t know what it’s like!”

In my last post, I talked about how a person’s experience can be held against them. In this post, I want to talk about how a person’s lack of experience also can be held against them. It’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” right?

“You don’t know what it’s like!” I’d be surprised if you have never been told this, or something like it, particularly if you’ve ever spend much time around kids, who sometimes assume it would be impossible for any adult to understand the trials of being a teenager. After all, adults have never been young, right?

All kidding aside, lack of experience can make for some tricky relational navigation. Let’s say I’m talking to one of my friends about what things were like for me growing up. My friend can’t relate to my experiences, because her’s were different.  She has a great relationship with her dad and was generally far more sheltered than I was. Here I am, angry, hurting, spitting and snarling, and we both know that by my standards, her life was cake. What does she say to me? How can she advise me? Encourage me? Comfort me? Almost anything she could offer, I could fend off just by saying, “You don’t know what it’s like.”

And it would be true. She doesn’t.

Let’s move on to another conversation. My roommate, who is going to be a darn good teacher some day soon, had to write a reflection paper for school on generational poverty. She’d been to a conference where the featured speaker was Dr. Donna Beegle. Dr. Beegle grew up in generational poverty and managed to climb out of it. She now tries to educate inexperienced folk about poverty. If you’re interested, you can read all about it on her site, but I’m talking about Carey, who had a paper to write, and she was stuck. You know what was choking her? She doesn’t “know what it’s like.” What could she have to say to people drowning in hardship she has never experienced? Not only does she lack the potentially helpful voice of experience, people who are struggling can be quick to snap out rejection and question what right Carey would have to even open her mouth. After all, she doesn’t know what it’s like.

And that’s true. She doesn’t.

But here’s a question – do I or anybody else who has ever been hurt have the right to demand the silence of those unwounded?

I’d say no. Even if I don’t agree with what they have to say, even if I think they’re out of touch with what I think is reality, even if they’re pushing all of my buttons and sore spots, I don’t have the right to force them to be quiet. It’s pretty accusatory, aggressive behavior to demand someone’s silence and/or agreement by saying, “You don’t know what it’s like.” It is behavior that starts to blur the line between victim and victimizer. Maybe I’m just messed up (which is likely enough, but I bet I’ve plenty of company!), but it is too easy to use my past to bully somebody into doing what I want.

Here’s another question – have we nothing to learn from those with different experiences?

I had lots of bad experiences as a kid. There’s no rollback, do-over option. Those are my experiences, and I can’t change that. I do have time ahead of me still to learn new things and have other, hopefully less injurious experiences, but that’s not necessarily going to make up for what I lost. Relying on new experiences to learn new things is also pretty slow. Two or three good experiences probably won’t suffice to retrain years of bad habits. Fortunately, there are options. You know what Proverbs says? Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” Proverbs 19:20 says this: “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” I can’t go back and experience what it’s like to have a great father, but I can listen to my friends who do. And if I start squawking and squirming, you know what they can say to me? “You don’t know what it’s like.”

And, oh, is that true! I don’t. I don’t know what it’s like, but I’m so glad that other people have different experiences. I’m glad they can tell me about their lives, and that not only can I be happy for them, I can also learn something about my life by listening to their stories and letting the truths in them challenge the truths I’ve experienced. That’s not easy – it’s honestly easier to try shutting them down – but I’d say the insight I’ve gained has been well worth the discomfort of being challenged. Just because somebody hasn’t struggled through my exact struggles doesn’t mean that there is nothing of worth in what they might have to say about my situation.

Personally, I hope that people like my friends, people who haven’t had some of the negative life experiences that others have had, continue to speak up. I hope they continue to share. I hope that they faithfully continue to offer what they know to be true and right even if they “don’t know what it’s like.” I hope they never allow themselves to be silenced by another’s sneering pain and, with tenderness and courage and grace and love, continue to talk about goodness and justice and hope. I hope they know that what they have to say, their often quiet, sometimes tentative words, are just as important as what anybody else might have to say.

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Experience, Sometime Foe

There’s a proverb commonly used about experience. It says, “Experience is the best teacher.” People certainly seem to believe that when it comes to jobs. Having some work experience can certainly make it easier to get hired. I’d say fire and heat is another area where we’re great believers in the teaching power of experience. As Tolkien wrote, “The burned hand teaches best.” One of the reasons I trust my doctor when he gives me a diagnosis is because he’s experienced. The checker at the supermarket who has been there a few years is definitely faster than the brand new one. I’d rather take my car to a mechanic who has some experience than one who doesn’t. Pilots should definitely be experienced. I don’t want to book a flight on somebody’s first ever attempt.

Experience, while not the be-all-end-all (other factors, like education, work ethic, and a good attitude are important, too), has advantages. People with it can work more smoothly and efficiently. Common pitfalls are generally more adroitly avoided, and experienced people fumble less. Somebody who knows the territory usually gets lost less than somebody who has never been there before.

So if education is twelve kinds of awesome, why is it that sometimes having experience is held against you? What makes some kinds of experience a “bad thing,” not to be trusted, or somehow a problem? It’s almost like there’s sometimes a prejudice in place.

See, my dad wasn’t the world’s best dad. He wasn’t the world’s worst, either, but he was closer to worst than best. He beat my sibs and I and did other things that loving fathers aren’t supposed to do to their children. Abuse and neglect are strong themes in my childhood story, making for lots of hard experiences, and I most certainly did learn things from those experiences. I will be the FIRST to admit that some of what I learned was bad, like how to hurt and manipulate other people. Being afraid of my father is not a good thing to have learned, either.

Other people’s reactions to my story can be pretty interesting. Some people are very sympathetic and supportive. Others can clearly relate all too well, some are unsympathetic, and then there’s another group. They acknowledge that I was hurt, but then seem to hold that against me. I’ve been told that my beliefs or opinions about family, parents, church, and all kinds of things probably are just the result of pain and bitterness and therefore couldn’t possibly be valid. I don’t get that reaction. I think it’s condescending, not to mention rude and lazy and sometimes self-protective. Quite frankly, I’d rather deal with outright hostility than deal with somebody who believes that I’m so crippled by my past that I’ll never be able to “walk. “

I do understand that sometimes when people have been badly wounded, they aren’t necessarily reasonable or rational. I know that it’s easy to become set upon what a person knows, those lousy experiences, and to refuse to grow. I know bitterness is a sweetly fired, spreading poison that gnaws the bones. But just because somebody is unreasonable or irrational and not necessarily objective, does that make them wrong? Does that invalidate their opinion? Does it make their information worthless? Should we merely humor and otherwise dismiss them? If “the burned hand teaches best,” why on earth would the burn victim’s experience be counted as less than the person who hasn’t faced the flames?

I am not saying that experience can’t be a problem. It can be. It sure can be. All the wrong lessons that keep a person bound and crippled and festering are frequently learned from painful experiences. I just don’t think it’s fair or right or very smart to uncritically discount what those have faced flames have learned. If nothing else, even if they’re all wrong, simply listening without dismissal can tell them that they matter.

Thanks for listening!

Back to My Roots

I woke up this morning grumpy. My back hurt, I didn’t want to go to work, and I could hear the rain pouring and the wind howling outside. Grumpy doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, does it? I’ve noticed the last couple of days that I’ve had to watch my attitude. Grumpy is coming easily. A little bit of grumpy is no big deal, but chronically grumpy sours into bitterness, and that’s not how I want to live out my life.

What can make it hard is that I have some legitimate complaints. I’ve been in pain, often a considerable amount of it, almost constantly for about three months. Pain, I’m finding, is a wearing and exhausting thing with which to live. Besides the fact that it hurts, it grinds on me. It makes me feel weaker. I’m always devoting a fair amount of energy to living with it. I also feel guilty about it. It’s been three months, and I’ve been cooperative with my plan of care. Shouldn’t I all better by now? What am I doing wrong? I’m not, by the way. Apparently, some of the damage done can take six months to heal, but knowing that doesn’t necessarily make me feel great when I’m feeling down about it. I still hurt. I still feel weak and guilty. I’m still angry over the unfairness. I’m still being disappointed in my desire to be better, and that makes it easy, easy to feel all grumpy, and then to be snarky and sour, and then… You see how this goes, right? Somehow, I need to allow myself room to be in pain and to have reason for complaint without allowing it to eat me alive.

This isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve had something hard and unfair. I learned some things from those prior experiences that I’m finding helpful now. One is that I do need to watch my attitude. When I was a kid, I didn’t know that. I didn’t watch it very well which meant that I had some difficult messes to clean up when I started dealing with the reality that I’d suffered childhood abuse. Another is that I need to leave myself room for the legitimate pain and emotional turmoil I’m experiencing. I can’t just tell myself to shutup and ride without doing more damage. Yet another is the realization that I can’t do this on my own. I need God’s help and provision and ear.

In the last couple of days, I’ve noticed that I’ve almost without conscious thought turned myself toward God. If I’m grumpy, I grouch at Him and complain about how unfair it is. If I hurt, I cry out and tell Him that I can’t do this. This morning, I noticed another old lesson popped up. I was lying in bed, grouchy about being awake, and instead of staying there, I started thanking God for stuff. The truth is that I have not only reasons for complaint, but I also have reasons for gratitude. Work may be getting on my nerves sometimes, but I do have a job, one with decent pay and benefits and an employer that I usually appreciate and think appreciates me. My back might hurt, but most everything else is working great, and my back is better. I have a great mom. I like my siblings most of the time. I have some really good, sweet friends. Some time in the near future, there will be silly lambs bouncing all over the place and making me laugh with their antics. I live in an abundantly beautiful place. There are lots of good things in my life for which I am genuinely grateful.

One thing I would like to point out my attitude of gratitude is not a case of, “Cheer up! It could always be worse.” I’m not happy about having a job because I could be one of the poor folk who hasn’t been able to find one, or because I’m not stuck doing something I truly hate. I’m not happy about my back pain because at least that’s the only body part currently misbehaving. I think cheering up because it could be worse is the same thing as telling myself to shutup and ride. It’s not gratitude. It’s another method to deny the legitimacy of my very real pain and genuine struggle. It takes what I feel and tells me that I shouldn’t be feeling it. I’ve done that to myself before, and I found that while denying what I feel can be good in the short term, making it a long term habit means I have a lot of unresolved issues that eventually refuse to be hidden or denied.

Tell you one more thing for which I’m grateful. It would be roots. It would be the experience I’ve already acquired and the habits I’ve already learned that make turning toward God something that I don’t always have to struggle to remember. I’ve got that established, rooted into my life. That doesn’t mean I always remember right away to turn to God to pray and wait and rest and praise and all that, but it’s certainly quicker and easier and more likely to happen in a timely manner. For that, I’m grateful.