The true value of experiences.

When I was about fifteen years old, I wrote a story about a young pianist who was blinded in a terrible car accident. As you may well imagine, this tragedy changed her life, and she had to come to terms with her disability. As a teenager, I hadn’t had many experiences. I had felt the cutting wound of rejection; the upheaval of a couple of moves – from Bendigo, to Albury, and then Melbourne; and the death of a grandparent and a dog. But I had only my imagination to call upon to begin to understand what being vision-impaired might be like. I remember, quite clearly, spending about an hour sitting in one of the music rehearsal rooms at school, blindfolded, trying to get a sense of even a fraction of the experience of blindness. I sat silently and alone, just like the heroine in my story, listening to every sound around me. Even in that short time, my hearing became more attuned, my remaining senses compensating for the temporary loss of my vision. 

Now, I never ever actually wished or wanted to be blind, but I did recognise – even as a young person – that the authenticity of my story’s character depended on my having some understanding of her experience. My fleeting foray with being in the dark couldn’t begin to replicate what a vision-impaired person experiences, but it gave me an insight. Those brief moments taught me a lesson, broadened my understanding, and allowed me to be a more empathetic and well-rounded person. That’s what experiences do. And so in my (nearly) forty-five years, I have come to believe in the value of experience, whether it be difficult, triumphant or humbling; joyful, heartbreaking or frightening. I don’t particularly believe in a universe set up to teach us lessons, but I do recognise the value of seeing each of life’s happenings as a positive, even if it is ultimately a tragedy or tumult.  

It is this vein that I believe in authenticity and honesty. Do I believe there are circumstances to tell a little white lie or omit the whole truth? Absolutely. But I feel strongly that many of us miss out on genuine human experiences because we consider difficult or challenging situations as something to avoid. We often shield people from having to deal with a event that is either sad or confronting, and this is particularly true for older people, and very young people. We, as family or friends, withhold information from an elderly person about their grandchild being gay, or their son going through chemotherapy, or an old friend experiencing depression, because we don’t want to burden or overwhelm them. At some point, we seem to consider them to be unable to cope with the true nature of life around them. We wrap them in cotton wool, and protect them from any possible heartache or worry. The same is true with what we choose to impart to young children. We tell them that the dog ran away, grandma’s gone on a long holiday, or Uncle Jeremy and David are just best friends. Some things don’t need to be shared, but we do miss an opportunity to allow children to have real, healthy feelings and experiences when we misdirect or flat out lie to them. Older people miss out on the experience of growing and learning when we deceive or misrepresent the truth, and once we stop developing and evolving as humans, we often stop living – figuratively and literally. 

I had the experience a few years ago of meeting my high school bully, after twenty-five years. Leading up to the reunion, I was urged by several of my peers not to confront her about it, despite them knowing that the experience of being terrorised and degraded by her was emotionally crippling for me, and caused another classmate to be suicidal. “Whatever you do,” one girl said, “don’t mention about how she bullied you. She’s just gone through a terrible divorce,” she lowered to a whisper, “and even spent some time in a mental institution.” I complied with their request, despite the fact that on meeting Sarah the bully, she behaved in the same belittling, bitchy and hurtful way as she had a quarter of a century earlier. Was a school reunion the place to set the record straight? Probably not. But was there an opportunity to compassionately, thoughtfully and constructively explain the truth of her history? I think so. By sugar-coating the past I was complicit in not only invalidating the trauma of every girl who was tortured by Sarah, but also preventing her from knowing a truth about herself and her behaviour, and possibly, learning from it. It may not be our job to teach someone a lesson, but it seems that by withholding information, we may also deny an experience of growth. 

I don’t think anyone on the planet wants to have cancer, have a partner die, go bankrupt, have their home wiped out in a fire, or face any number of difficult or life threatening experiences. But these events do occur, and for the most part, we survive them. We may look back and say, “If I had a time machine, I’d change that,” or we might wish we’d never had to live through sickness, grief, disaster or heartache. But along with those negative experiences, often comes positive ones. We meet someone who changes our life for the better; we learn a new hobby to get through the long lonely nights; we find an inner strength and determination to go on. And that’s what gives life fullness; that’s what gives our lives meaning; and how we grow, learn, and become whole, compassionate, authentic human beings.  

© 2015 Benjamin S. MacEllen

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