This is a contributor piece written for the Joy Of It Blog.
The phrase “two steps forward, one step back” has been rattling around in my head the past few weeks. My husband recently described a childhood experience where his family climbed Mount Saint Helens in Washington State. He explained how the final 1,000 feet of elevation climb is made through gritty sand-like volcanic ash and pumice and you, quite literally, are sliding one step back for every two steps forward in the effort to reach the summit.
The experience of going backwards, retracing steps, can be at the least frustrating, and for most of us, maddening. In practical or external life this sensation is largely universal – we’re all experiencing it to some degree. Driving the same roads because you missed your turn, cleaning up (again) after the kids you’ve been teaching to clean up after themselves, committing to a budget then dealing with unforeseen expenses.
But what happens when our experience of “two steps forward, one step back” is primarily internal? When progress in our emotional maturity is marked by small victories, then predictable defeats? When spiritually, we experience a season of growth, that seems to be inevitably followed by a season of difficulty? What if we’re not becoming the person we thought we’d be?
As I’ve aged and had to deal with the feeling of going in circles as a parent, within marriage, within career and within my own soul, I’ve begun to ask myself if the repetition is actually an opportunity to learn – or unlearn. Taking one step back and unlearning what is no longer helpful, makes room for change and growth.
Unlearning is learning too.
The Discipline of Unlearning.
Some habits and behaviors are harmful to us, and we’re simply unaware.
I grew up in California and I have a habit of chasing the sun. I love being outside and summer after summer I would soak up as much vitamin D as possible. I consistently wore sunscreen, but eventually the effects of the sun exposure on my fair skin took its toll. It showed up as Basal cell skin cancer in the middle of my right cheek. Ignoring it was not an option. If cancer is left un-dealt with it just keeps growing.
Not only did it require surgical measures to remove the cancer from my face, it meant changing the habit of how I chased the sun.
Even in unlearning my summertime habits, more cancer showed up a few months later, this time on my chin. I was faced, literally, with the reality that my choices from years back were having an effect on me now, even after making some positive changes. I once again underwent the surgery to remove what was toxic and what did not belong. The process of healing from the wounds on my face, and the scars that remain, are a reminder to me that part of learning is thinking ahead to the future, and not only living for the moment.
I had to unlearn the pattern of doing what provided short term benefit, in exchange for wisdom that would sustain my health for years to come. This physical and external example of moving towards health mirrors an internal process that is equally important. When spots of “cancer” show up in my relational and behavioral patterns, leaving them unattended is a detrimental choice. Doing the work to remove what will contaminate is a vital discipline of unlearning.
New learning won’t fit in old ways of thinking.
There is a story told in the gospel of Mark about what happens to new wine when it is put into an old wineskin. Within the framework of “unlearning”, this passage came to mind. Turns out the idea of doing away with old, unhelpful thinking is a foundational truth found in the Word of God and applicable today.
This scripture says…
“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22)
Essentially this passage is saying is that you can’t put new learnings into old ways of thinking. They won’t fit. Putting new wine in an old wineskin is problematic. The old container has a fixed shape and is no longer pliable. New wine is still in the fermentation process which means it is expanding. The activity of the new wine creates more movement than the old wineskin can contain in its inflexible state, causing it to break and burst, ruining both.
The example of what happens to wine is an invitation for us to self examine areas in our life; to look at where we’ve experienced growth and health, and caution us from shoving it back into a framework that puts that growth at risk of being lost. New results won’t be produced from old behaviors. The old mindsets and behaviors have to be removed or unlearned to make room for growth.
Transformation through sanctification.
The hardest part of creating a new habit is starting. The mental energy devoted to retrain the neural pathways that have created deep grooves in our brains is not for the faint of heart. So what are we to do? It is far from a simple fix, but a good place to start is by paying attention to what messages we are listening to. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that the renewing of my mind is a real and true possibility because of the transforming work of Jesus on the cross.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1–2)
Growth in our lives is initiated by the work of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to live a life that is holy and acceptable before God, but the choice is ours alone to make. When parts of our lives begin the process of transformation through the renewing of our minds, one of the biggest obstacles is the familiar and the comfortable. God, in His kindness reveals to us what needs to be surrendered to Him, so that He can take our broken pieces and move us toward wholeness.
Transformation is a process, a process that we call sanctification – the continuing change worked by God in us, freeing us from sinful habits and forming in us Christlike affections, dispositions, and virtues.
This process in our lives may very well look like “two steps forward, one step back.” The going back to unlearn mindsets that are no longer useful is a necessary process. Unlearning is essential to removing the obstacles that hinder new knowledge from occupying its rightful place.