And yet how often we forget that.
The phrase is in fact a reversal of Seneca’s original, which put the matter as it was: we do not learn for life, but for the schoolroom. And today we learn not for school, but for an exam.
How do we make learning about life? How do we make what we learn matter?
One place to start: demand it of your own education. Don’t settle when you know it’s a waste. There’s not enough time for that; there’s too much important stuff to learn.
In cycling it’s often said that “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” Anyone who practices regularly at a sport will know the sentiment. Train for ten years going up a single mountain climb and at the end it’ll hurt just as much as on day one; the only difference will be one’s average speed.
I spoke with a friend and fellow student here at Yale-NUS College over dinner recently. He had spent six weeks of his summer holidays at a Buddhist monastery in rural China. Each day he would be woken at four A.M. to begin the first of three sessions of meditation for the day. I wanted to know from him how he noticed his approach to meditation changing; how he observed his mind clearing over time, how it became easier, how he became better at it.
His response was that, in all honesty, it wasn’t the meditation that he remembers. It was the mosquitos that bit him constantly. At the monastery there was to be no killing of anything, including mosquitos, and while meditating he was forced to remain as still as possible. At the beginning it had been unbearable; he remembers hours hating the mosquitos, wanting to kill them all, angry that so little a thing could cause so much discomfort and could consume one’s mind so totally.
After six weeks, the mosquitos annoyed him exactly the same as they had at the start. He still noticed them all the same. But his attitude was one of resignation, knowing that within the confines of his situation, he could do nothing to alter the pain and annoyance.
It never got easier. Meditation wasn’t an antidote to his problems. But he learned that what was a choice was his response to the situation. It never got easier for him, but he did get better at it.
One perspective on writing says to give everything you have, right away; to not hold anything back for later, because more will always come, and you need to use what you have right now.
Another perspective says to keep your best for when the timing is right; when you have the right medium or platform, when the right people will be able to read what you have to say. To let it go before then is to waste it.
It’s these times when faced with contradictory advice that you learn who you are, because you can’t hide behind by others’ well-meaning opinions. That advice may not be right for you and your circumstances anyway. Only when there are two opposed ideas are they essentially cancelled out, leaving you with your own decision for your own reasons.
Which way I answer the examples I’ve given here will show what type of writer I am. But there are times when the stakes are even higher; when the decision is about what type of person you are.
Perhaps that is why one should ultimately seek out advice. Not to listen to it, but to gather enough that it can all be ignored and one can actually decide for oneself, and to decide without ignorance.