Do we really learn from our mistakes?

Do we really learn from our mistakes?

Probably most of us can recognise some patterns of our behaviour that are not helpful to us, yet we continue to repeat them. Even knowing that the behaviour has the potential to directly or indirectly affect our health, often does not result in us changing what we do and how we do it. We may have every good intention of mending our ways by engaging in health promoting activities, or refraining from damaging behaviour in our relationships, and we may feel absolutely determined not to repeat our unhelpful behaviour any more, and then the next thing we know is that we have tripped up yet again.

homerThis leaves me questioning the wisdom of my elders as I was growing up: “You learn from your mistakes.”

My experience is that most people (including me!) repeat their mistakes or their unhelpful behaviour. We humans are creatures of habit, and our behaviours, helpful or not, become our habits. We become accustomed to speaking, acting and responding in certain ways, or withdrawing ourselves from situations, and even though we may wish to change our ways, we may find ourselves acting in opposition to our intention. So why has the wisdom espoused that we from our mistakes?

It was George Santayana who stated in his great literary work, The Life of Reason: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” From this statement, many variations have developed over the years and become clichés of wisdom, such as: “You learn from your mistakes.”

Although it seems to have been accepted as great wisdom and offered as such to others, I question the reality of the wisdom and the eloquent philosopher’s statement. Without a doubt, the intention, I believe of most people, is to learn from their mistakes and to not repeat them. In that regard, Santayana’s statement and its derivatives are idealistic. It is what we all desire.

However, on many levels, we see that the ideal is not played out in real life.

Politically in our society, we continue to govern and war by the same adversarial methods, where the opposition – those opposed to the ‘regular’ way we do things – is the enemy, and metaphorically or actually, needs to be wiped out.

Socially and economically, we have seen throughout history that money is not the answer for social harmony, yet competition and greed continues to be central to our education and lifestyle, thereby perpetuating the very aspects of society that create disharmony.

The disparity between the ideal and the actual is evident also in our personal lives: our intention does not match our reality. Even when we know of the dysfunction or dangers of our behaviours, we tend to repeat them.

Far from me to disagree with George Santayana…

I certainly agree with the intention and logic of his statement: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems very logical and reasonable that we would learn from our mistakes. However, generally speaking, I fail to see the evidence of this. We do remember the past; we do remember our weaknesses or unhelpful behaviours, and yet for the most part, we continue to repeat them. homer2

Eventually, after a long record of defeat and repeating our mistakes, it may be the case that we do in fact succeed in changing our behaviour. On the personal scale, this is more likely to occur when our situation has deteriorated to an extremely low point, such as a health, relationship or economic crisis, or devastation caused by natural disaster. Through crisis or devastation, many will turn around unhelpful habits to create the new habits that they have been striving for all along. In that regard, our lowest points become our greatest opportunities.

Far from being the norm that we learn from our mistakes, I think that it generally takes crisis points to finally learn our lessons.

The introduction of new behaviours, or avoidance of the old habits, most likely feel unfamiliar and uneasy at first, but like everything, it takes more and more practice at something new for it to become more comfortable and to begin to form our new habit.

I am more unsure of the conditions, or the crisis points that may need to occur in political and social/economic arenas, that will lead our society to significant change, where we do not repeat our past mistakes, where we eventually live in harmony and respect for all people and the world we live in.

What do you think?

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  1. Marg, This is something that I have considered for many years and all I can boil it down to is that if there is no change, there is no change. For any change to take place or rather, to learn from our mistakes we need to recognise what and why and only then can we move forward to actually learn that that path is perhaps not the best avenue to take. It is always difficult to learn from our mistakes but from personal experience I know that it is possible, but only by first acknowledging that it exists. Thank you for another thought provoking blog. x

    • Margaret Lambert says

      Thanks for your comment Belinda and yes, I agree that we can indeed learn from our mistakes. However, I think it is often only after we have realised, as you said, that it’s not the best path to take and then we can commit to doing things differently. For many of us, to get to that point of reflection, I think we actually need to hit rock bottom to come to the realisation and commitment to not go down that path again (and even then it’s not fool proof and we may lapse into past patterns of behaviour). Appreciate your insightful comments! x

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