Sunday, August 30, 2009

Thoughts On Golf And The Art Of Unlearning

Are You Illiterate?

My Irish great-grandfather was illiterate, a result of imperial Britain’s ban on the education of the Irish. He immigrated to America in 1840, and in the place on his immigration papers requiring his signature he made an “X.” Today in the twenty-first century, the majority of adults can read and write. But even if you can, you may still be illiterate! According to Alvin Toffler, “the illiterate of the twenty-first century will be…those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

More painful than learning is unlearning; it is more difficult than teaching new tricks to an old dog. It requires kicking out from beneath you old structures that give you a secure sense of support. This century’s new unfortunate illiterate ones will be those unable to unlearn what they were taught by schools, the state, and their church. For only those who are able to unlearn will in turn be able to learn new ways to live in a complex evolving age of change.

Force me to strenuously use an eraser
to remove my mind’s old knowledge
that stymies my soul and stagnates me,
so I’ll be eager and ready to learn new ways.


"More painful than learning is unlearning." This is such a profound truth. I actually learned the truth of this when teaching golf , not with beginners, but with people who had played the game. It's much easier to teach beginners precisely because they have nothing to unlearn. Those who had already played for awhile had all kinds of things to unlearn, and usually their resistance, both overt and covert, was the most difficult thing to overcome.

Sadly, one of the most frequent excuses used to hang on to abysmal swing faults, was the fact it was how their dad/husband/uncle/brother/mother/friend or who ever, had taught them. A close personal association gave these well meaning amateur teachers more credibility than any professional. The second biggest obstacle were TV or magazine experts. Usually people just added the experts advice onto an already flawed swing, making that flawed swing even more flawed.

I got so tired of hearing, "Yea, but, so and so, said this thing I'm doing makes all the difference in the world." The fact that the 'thing' the student was doing actually made no significant improvement in their performance never computed. When it came to the advice of friends, family, and TV experts, there was no such thing as a reality check. It was never that the advice was wrong, it was the erstwhile student just wasn't executing it correctly.

Reteaching a correct swing took three to four times the amount of time it took to take a true neophyte to the same level. This differential was strictly because of all the unlearning and the resistance to that unlearning that a person had to endure. Believe me, it was an endurance test. (For me too.)

I've always felt golf was a particularly spiritual sport for a number of valid reasons. There's an unstated axiom that a person's golf handicap reflects their sense of self worth and self confidence as much as their athletic talent. This has been born out in a number of studies with both amateurs and touring professionals.

For instance, a professional is far more apt to make a twenty foot putt for bogey or par than they are birdie or eagle. For amateurs, they may never sink that twenty foot putt for birdie, but they will for double bogey. Essentially, scoring is directly affected by what you think you deserve based on what you think about yourself. Even knowing this, I too fell into the same trap. I would make 8 foot putts all the time, as long as they weren't for birdie. When it was for birdie the failure ratio doubled. For me, knowing the dynamic only made the truth of the dynamic more frustrating. It's in this area of golf that Tiger Woods blows his competition away. The man is incredible.

Advancing in the spiritual path is as susceptible to the same issues of unlearning, relearning, self worth and self judgement as is the game of golf. Tiger's confidence in himself is such that he does not fear retooling his golf swing. I think he's now on his third retool. His sees his swing as a tool he uses, not a reflection of himself. As such he can drop one swing and pick up another almost as easily as he does clubs.

With the spiritual path too many of us see a particular religious or theological interpretation as an extension of ourselves and call it TRUTH, rather than a tool or a set of guiding principles. I'm perfectly aware of the fact I'm being simplistic here. Changing one's religious understanding is far more complicated than changing one's golf swing, but the principles are the same. For a golfer the goal is to get better at golf. For a spiritual believer the goal is to get closer to God. In both cases the primary obstacle to progress is the difficulty with the unlearning the new learning may require. Jesus said this Himself, and I used it all the time when I taught golf. "You can not put new wine into old wine skins."

Sometimes it would happen that students just did not want to put the effort into the unlearning and stopped the lessons. Golf wasn't important enough to them for that kind of effort, but at least now they knew it. They learned something about themselves. I was always OK with that. These decisions were made from self knowledge and self honesty. I had total respect for that.

What I have a tough time respecting, is Catholics who claim their Catholicism means a great deal to them and then won't do the work required to progress on the path. They claim they have no more to learn, all the rules, regulations, doctrine, and dogma are already written. They have them memorized and besides EWTN, Bishop so and so, or the Pope agrees with them.

The real truth is the Pope himself would be the last one to make such a claim, because he knows it isn't true. We don't have all the truth and all the answers. We are a pilgrim church. I'm not sure certain bishops or the talking heads at EWTN share the same understanding. Maybe Pope should get them out on a golf course.

1 comment:

  1. So, so true Colleen. There has been much that I have had to unlearn, so that I could learn.

    I have never learned to play golf, so I guess that would make me an excellent student.

    So true with learning about God and Jesus. So much to learn, and we'll never know it all. The point isn't to "know it all." Thank God it is not necessary to "know it all." I am happy to not "know it all." The point is to learn and grow in our faith and get closer to God. If we hold onto old notions, teachings that are not truth, we'll never learn and keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.