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Don Meyer, Ph.D.

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Learning From Experience

Posted: 09/26/2012 11:22 am

"Can a man who's warm understand a man who's freezing?"-- Alexander Solzhenitsyn

During Napoleon's invasion of Russia, the story is told of a certain occasion when his troops were battling in the middle of yet another small town in that endless wintry land. Somehow, Napoleon was accidently separated from his men.

A group of Russian Cossacks spotted him and began chasing him through the twisting streets. Napoleon ran for his life and ducked into a little furrier's shop on a side ally. As Napoleon entered the shop, gasping for breath, he saw the furrier and cried piteously, "Save me, save me! Where can I hide?"

The furrier said, "Quick, under this big pile of furs in the corner," and he covered Napoleon up with many furs.

No sooner had he finished than the Russian Cossacks burst in the door shouting, "Where is he? We saw him come in." Despite the furrier's protests, they tore his shop apart trying to find Napoleon. They poked into the pile of furs with their swords but didn't find him. Soon, they gave up and left.

After some time, Napoleon crept out from under the furs, unharmed, just as Napoleon's personal guards came in the door. The furrier turned to Napoleon and said timidly, "Excuse me for asking this question of such a great man, but what was it like to be under those furs, knowing that the next moment would surely be your last?"

Napoleon drew himself up to his full height and said to the furrier indignantly, "How could you ask me, the Emperor Napoleon, such a question? Guards take this impudent man out, blindfold him and execute him. I myself will give the command to fire."

The guards grabbed the furrier, dragged him outside, stood him against a wall and blindfolded him. The furrier could see nothing, but he could hear the guards shuffle into line and prepare their rifles. Then he heard Napoleon clear his throat and call out, "Ready! Aim!" In that moment, a feeling he could not describe welled up within him; tears poured down his cheeks.

Suddenly the blindfold was stripped from his eyes. Although partially blinded by the sunlight he could see Napoleon's eyes looking intently into his own -- eyes that seemed to see every dusty corner of his soul. Then Napoleon said, "Now you know."

There really are some things that only come by personal experience. No one can learn to ride a bike by reading a manual. No one can be a food critic without eating the meal. No one can play a violin unless they pick up the instrument.

Personal experience transforms our theoretical knowledge into what Napoleon meant when he said, "Now you know." Mark Twain once said, "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way."

Before Evie and I travel to another country, we try learn about the culture, geography, history, and even the style of clothes which will be appropriate. We read books. We talk with those who have been there. We practice and practice simple greetings in the host language.

But, no matter how much we prepare, nothing (and I do mean nothing) can take the place of a firsthand, personal experience of being there. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and impressions are always overwhelmingly greater than anything we ever could have anticipated.

In view of this, we should use more caution before we casually say to someone who has gone through a huge challenge, "I understand." Sure, we may grasp part of the experience, but unless it actually happened like that to us, we might not. Unless our baby died or we were fired, or our son was maimed in war or we lost an election, or went bankrupt or got cancer, we really don't understand.

As C. S. Lewis said, "Experience: the most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn."

Think about it.

 
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