Not too long ago, I was struggling over a plate of meatloaf in the doctor’s dining room. Fortunately, the table conversation was better than the food. Somehow it turned to how early career doctors tend to mirror the culture and clinical habits from their training program and how it often takes years to unlearn habits that don’t serve us well in the long run, particularly habits related to work-life integration. Training programs are more sensitive to this now, but the economics of medicine are an inescapable reality we must navigate, and in our counseling program, I hear of the struggles that some physicians experience to sustain meaning and joy in their work and healthy relationships and peace away from work. Students are now referred to as “learners,” and I pray that most of what they learn will serve them well after training, but it makes me wonder if we should all eventually progress from learner to “unlearner” and whether both states aren’t valuable in their own way.
There is much in popular psychology literature about unlearning. J.R. Rim famously noted, “Intelligence is what we learn; wisdom is what we unlearn.” Even the icon of pop culture wisdom, Yoda, of Star Wars fame, advised Luke that in his spiritual path forward, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” Ask any therapist ̶ unlearning is foundational to new beginnings.
I revisited Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, recalling that a theme in much of his writing is about unlearning. As he puts it, “All mature spirituality in one sense or another is about letting go and unlearning.” Rohr holds that life really consists of two phases. The first phase is the egocentric phase, what he calls the “survival dance,” wherein the emphasis is on developing identity, success, security, and image cultivating. This is not to say this phase is bad ̶ it is all necessary, and though there are many struggles, most often great good comes with it, along with important learning, experience, love, and joy. Rohr holds that the ultimate task of this stage of life is building what he calls “a proper container” that will be needed in the second phase of life.
In the second phase of life, those learned survival and identity tasks fall into the background, habits that supported them are questioned — unlearned — and the container created earlier is emptied and then filled with awareness and appreciation for deeper meaning. Things that the soul thirsts for that were missing earlier can now be fully discovered. It is a time of “letting go.” Rohr calls this the “soul dance,” Zen masters call it seeking the face you had before you were born. Some religious traditions call it being reborn. Some note parallels with the common literary structure of the hero’s journey. In any sense, it is a shedding of baggage accumulated earlier for something better. It can occur subtly or abruptly and depending on your early life experience, it may show itself at any age, or in some, it may never become evident.
There’s no good story nor anything profound in all this, just an observation made over a half-eaten piece of meatloaf. What we call our life journey may be a journey to the true self, spiritual wholeness, or God, but like any hero’s journey, it is always a journey home, the home your soul desires. At some point, young or old, most will find themselves as lost as Dante: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood, for the right way was lost.” It will be wise to remember at that point the importance of unlearning, of letting go. It is in the homeward part of that journey where rather than paddling furiously, we might just drift in the current and finally look up to enjoy the scenery that was there all along. And on the long journey home, as Mary Oliver urges, “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”
Brian Sayers is a rheumatologist.