“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” Flannery O’Connor
Could you imagine Martin Luther writing a book on how to think like a monk? Could one learn to think like a monk without actually living like a monk and experiencing everything that being a monk required and involved.
Could you imagine St. Francis of Assisi writing about The Pursuit of God, without a lifetime experience of pursuing God or that he would say that one could pursue God by simply reading a book about God while sitting in a nice and comfortable room, and while living a nice and comfortable consumer lifestyle.
Could you imagine Mother Teresa writing a book on vulnerability without sacrificing everything to help others, or thinking anyone could possibly know what vulnerability is without personally being it all the time.
What if AA was 12 rules and not 12 steps? How do you think that would work for a bunch of rule breakers?
What if Thoreau never lived at Walden, Frederick Douglass never experienced the horrors of slavery and Dorothy Day never lived in poverty but they wrote books about nature, slavery and poverty- how would they know these places and circumstances intimately if they didn’t taste it, touch it, smell it, see it, hear it and feel it.
Do you think that we could even come close to experiencing nature, slavery or poverty just by reading about them, and that experience would be equal to the experience of those who lived in nature, in slavery and in poverty? And is it possible that one can glean from the experience of others something that they could use as a means to their own ends.
Martin Luther would probably piss himself laughing if someone asked him to teach people how to think like a monk. Can you think like a woman without being a woman or think like a farmer without being a farmer? Can we so easily separate the good from the bad, and avoid the experience altogether? Can we curate a life without living it? Or have an experience without experiencing it?
What we have today is an entire genre of best sellers that want us to believe that we can have the spirituality of a monk or follow the way of Christ without living the life of a monk or actually sacrificing anything to follow Christ. Similarly, we are led to believe that we can be vulnerable without completely sacrificing control, security, comfort and ourselves or that we can pursue God with thought and without carrying the cross. Furthermore, how many authors have dared to put down rules that could in any way transform our spirits, hearts, minds, bodies and relationships.
Do we really believe that we can think our way into being and with just the right information or rules that we can transform ourselves into becoming without doing anything?
It doesn’t work like that.
We cannot even develop imagination without lived experience. A thought experience is not the same as a lived experience. Books can inform and inspire but reading is not the same as living or doing. We cannot be transformed from the outside in. Education is not taught but education is learned by way of experience. Wisdom is a gift. Truth is not information, it is who we are designed to be, to follow and to imitate. You can read a lot about Truth and not know it at all.
Life must be lived. Spirituality cannot be separated or isolated from every other part of ourselves. Every physical act is a spiritual act. Vulnerability is living how we are designed which includes being weak, fragile, sensitive, needy, transparent, desperate and dependent on love and truth to help us remember who we are and how we are naturally designed to be healthy, whole, holy and human.
Reading is important to development and I believe it is necessary to read the complete experiences of others to understand context and receive the whole gift of their experience, strength and hope. However, we must be careful to avoid any formulas, hacks, tips and ways to shortcut life by modern day writers because we cannot shortcut life nor can we control it. Likewise, we cannot shortcut experience.
Reading is a gift that many of us do not create the time or space for and because of that, we are missing out on a pretty incredible gift. Yet, however wonderful reading is, it is not living. There have been many men and women who were gifted with much knowledge and wisdom and they did not read books because they were too busy being living, exploring, working and experiencing the gift of life to its fullest.
I bet if you asked any of the greats if you should read about a mountain or go hike it, and which you’d learn the most from….they’d all say go hike it, live on it, stare at, and experience it for yourself. Teaching what it is to know is teaching one to go experience life.