Looking for the Teachable Moments

Wednesday, January 21, 2015 - 5:52am
Photo by Mark Dadswell

Looking for the Teachable Moments

I'm glad so many of you found it helpful to reflect on the "thread" that runs through your life and can keep you from getting lost in dark times. (See last week's column of January 8.)

As I've thought about that thread in my life, one strand seems especially important: my aspiration to live as a learner. "What am I meant to learn from this situation? What's life trying to teach me here?" Questions like those help me find meaning in apparently meaningless situations.

There's an old quip about a desperate person who finally cries out to the universe, "Please! No more learning experiences!" Believe me, I know the feeling! But I also know that the less time I spend denying or resenting whatever is happening — and the more time I spend learning from it about what makes me and the world tick — the better off I am.

A man learns to ski at a resort in Harbin, China.

(Guang Niu / Getty Images.)

That's why I love this quote from T.H. White's classic novel, The Once and Future King, based on the legend of King Arthur. Here, the wizard Merlyn, who's been entrusted with educating the future king, is speaking to the young Arthur in what we'd call a "teachable moment."

Memo to self: Keep looking for teachable moments in your own life. And when you find one, remember, "Learning is the thing for you!"

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you."

Share Post

Shortened URL


Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

Share Your Reflection



There is much truth here- much needed truth. Thank you for posting this at a time when it seems that hopelessness and discouragement are about to take over. God's timing is always amazing.

Beautiful. ..and the perfect way to "self medicate"...learn. It can never be taken from you.

Much wisdom here Parker Palmer. I always enjoy reading your words. Thank you.

thank you for this. And thanks too for reminding me of one of my favorite books, The Once and Future King. I last read it as a teenager(I am now 68). Time for a reread!

Thank you Parker Palmer! Yes, I too am a life long learner. I consider learning an adventure of spirit and mind. As an early stage elder (at 65), I look forward to what I may learn in the years ahead and not only from books.Actually, I learn more from being present to all. I grow most from meeting myself at the edge; particularly where I get ruffled (something to be explored there) and then looking at what can open and expand.

Yes to the TH White's quote. I also find comfort and truth in Rilke's words:

“Perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.”

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

So true! Often you don't realize it, till you come out the other end.

I am so grateful Parker,again,for your chosen topic especially now,as the past weeks have brought so many events that brought so many tears and so much suffering caused by humans to other humans in so very many places in our dark
world.Asking and living the many questions ,and learning more and more through our own experiences will bring us forward.This is the very important thread that will keep reminding me of God over and over inviting us all to be co-creators.
Thank you!

Thanks for this post, which speaks to me as I head soon into my sixties. More and more I appreciate the opportunity to learn, to do something new in life. The complaint of the desperate person who asks for "no more learning experiences" reminds me of the old curse: May you live in interesting times. It's up to us, I think, to take on challenges as they arrive, and find the good in them.

Some existential philosopher said that life can only be lived forward, but understood looking backward. That seems about right, since everyone makes up narratives to try to make sense of experience. Teaching is one thing; learning quite another. It's all too easy to learn the "wrong" lessons because of confirmation bias, trying to fit experience into a framework that supports what one already believes.

Not to strike too contrarian a note, but I don't think Merlyn's advice here is very sound. There are many things to do (dependent on context) for being sad, but learning something--when everything may seem unrealistically bleak--wouldn't be on my top ten list. Reach out, talk a walk, phone friend, yes. The mind could and should justifiably fear and distrust "learning" within reason, because so much of the trouble in this world isn't what a person doesn't know, but rather what her or she is certain to be the case! The latter thought in paraphrase may be attributable to Mark Twain.

Merlyn's advice to Arthur here just isn't logically sound or supported by evidence in my opinion. Sorry. To be clear, learning is great as a process, and never ends, but to elevate it to be a cure-all for sadness doesn't ring true. On the other hand, this is an eloquent literature passage, and presents another teachable moment.

Hello Timothy - Another perspective on learning and one that is gaining great traction globally, across sectors, though curiously less so in education, is that we need to learn how to learn from the future - "sensing" that there is a future wanting and needing to be born, or to emerge, through us, and that needs us to do so. This is based on the work of Otto Scharmer, and his Theory U. I've studied his to work for years, via his books and presentations, Presencing, Theory U, Leading from an Emerging Future and now in a free global 6 week MOOC at his website. If you're curious to learn more, you could still participate. Best to you.

Well said. I think we all have different styles. Learning as M.O. appeals to some types more than others. But, lately, when I'm experiencing something "unpleasant" I do try and see it as a learning opportunity. Or sometimes I just surrender. Or have a good cry.

Parker, you have a love for quotes, keep it coming! Now, I really want to read this book. I am studying to be a teacher and your wisdom about being a lifelong learner is very encouraging. "Learning is the Thing for you."

This is my absolute favorite literary quote, perhaps ever. It's seen me through many a dark time.

Thank you for sharing one of my new favorite quotes, which I discovered last year while going through some difficult times. I'm so glad to see it repeated again here so I can re-experience the truth that it offers. For me, I see this quote not only encouraging life's teachable moments (although it's certainly that), but also advocating the learning of art, science, and all matter of subjects. I find that when I'm sad, by seeking our new knowledge such as the nature of the universe, the richness of human civilization, or the beauty of poetry, I become filled with joy and, above all, wonder. Then my "human fears" seem very small in comparison.

I was a little boy from Arkansas. I had ADD but it wasn't known then. I quit high school. I loved books. Now I have many of them.I can not imagine not reading and being curious about the world and life. I taught psychology and did therapy, mine own as well. I am 78 now. My curiosity and laughter are still with me. Some think I am much younger. I am saddened for friends that lie awake at night "listening to the disorder of their veins". thanks parker

Life-long learning has always been one of my tenets for living. If I am not learning, I should be dead. The necessary immersion in learning can always distract one from being sad, but is avoidance what I want? In this sense, Merlyn's advice rings hollow for me. But from his other words, I see the focus is to learn how the world works, so perhaps one will learn the futility of sadness, or how to live so that sadness is an infrequent visitor. That focus for learning makes sense to me. As far as learning from the past, one has to remember that the past only exists as a memory. The actuality of it is gone. So, pay attention to what goes on around you while it's happening, examine life carefully as it occurs, so that your memory of the past can be instructive and continue to serve you long after the reality has faded into nothingness.

Je pense que cette réflexion est magnifique et porteuse de vie, pour soi et pour les autres...

It never occurred to me that when Merlyn says, "Learning is the thing for you," he meant only that if you are sad or devastated you should study physics, astronomy, history, etc. For me, that interpretation makes "learning" and "schooling" synonymous -- which, in my experience, they definitely are not! Without rejecting the idea that profound personal troubles might be alleviated (at least in part) by getting my mind off myself and learning something about something else, I've always understood Merlyn to be encouraging me to learn from and about the sadness, the devastation, or whatever it is that's bringing me low. Using my experience with profound clinical depression as an opportunity to learn more about myself and my relation to the world has been life-giving. To me, "Learn more about why the world wags and what wags it" is to learn more about why I wag and what wags me!