As I click on the computer calendar preparing to scribe this digital missive, aka the Week-Ender blog, I realize with a slight jolt that I will be turning another day older today; well, actually, another year older–happy birthday to me.
It is assumed that as one gets older, one gets wiser as well. I suppose that varies with each individual, but generally, each minute we survive on this earth we have presumably learned something new. Thus, each day we should be another day more enriched in some way.
Wiser people than I have told me that making mistakes is OK as long as you learn from them and don’t make the same mistake twice. That is a noble endeavor, a worthy cause and a lofty goal and it’s one that I always shoot for; but I have to admit I have often had to make the same mistake more than once to learn the lesson the error in judgment was intended to convey.
I think that the level of consequence resulting from a mistake will dictate the degree of learning that is absorbed; the harsher or more pronounced the consequence is, the better the lesson is learned.
For example, as a young child my parents and older siblings told me that the stove was hot; it wasn’t until I put my hand to the flame and got singed that the lesson was driven home.
Another example: growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, I learned early about electricity and wiring and I was told that if wiring is frayed it is not safe to plug into a socket. It was not until I plugged in a frayed cord, nearly electrocuted myself and almost burned down our tool shed that I was imbued with the knowledge.
Then there was the time that my next oldest brother was trying to instruct me on the correct way to carry a full bucket of milk and carefully dump it into a larger can for shipment to the cheese factory. I didn’t listen and thought I had a better way; it wasn’t until I ended up dumping the entire bucket of milk onto myself instead of into the can that I surmised that my brother was on to something.
We humans, even the best of us, can be awfully hard-headed and stubborn; learning for some of us comes more from experiencing than it does from books or sage advice from others.
I recall a time as a budding Marine Corps combat correspondent learning the art of photojournalism; our instructors cautioned that when using a wide-angle lens subjects will be closer than they appear when looking through a camera’s viewfinder eye piece–and yes, this was a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, before digital cameras and big rear-viewing screens. You had to actually look through the viewfinder eyepiece to compose the photo.
Anyway, it wasn’t until I nearly got run over by an assault amphibian vehicle storming the beach on Okinawa that I truly understood that concept; in the viewfinder eyepiece it appeared that the 29-ton tracked vehicle was yards away from me as I photographed the beach assault. It wasn’t until I was deluged with a wave of sea water and sand that I realized the tracks of the monster had been mere inches from my feet. (And just to make it clear, I wasn’t on Okinawa during the original 82-day battle fought in WWII, 1945; I was deployed there in 1981.)
Years later when I was in a position of teaching young Marines the photojournalism trade, I would use that example to punctuate the importance of keeping both eyes opened when looking into the viewfinder; one eye in the camera world and one in the real world.
Therein may lie a lesson in itself; learning lessons and gaining experience is a hollow achievement if it is kept to yourself. Passing those lessons on to others is how we truly internalize the learning.
I have found that when I teach someone, I end up coming to a better understanding of what I am attempting to teach. Students, whether in a formal learning environment or during informal mentoring, will question and challenge and by responding to their questions the teacher often gains more knowledge.
When I teach someone how to play guitar, especially children, I have to tell them where each finger goes to form a “D” chord or a “G” chord and by so doing I have found that I often improve my own playing. Slowing down and re-learning the basics can often lead to improving my playing.
There have been hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of little lessons learned over my lifetime, so you’d think I’d be a pretty smart guy by this time; but I still make mistakes, I still do stupid things and I still sometimes make the same mistake more than once before I get it.
I guess maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he said “Life is a journey, not a destination.” We are always learning; and, as we all get a day older every day, after many of these days we may have to re-learn lessons that time has obscured.
That is why birthdays have never been a big deal to me and I’d just as soon forget mine and treat it like just another day. But I also have learned that such an attitude is not generally accepted and in fact can be viewed as rude to those who wish to acknowledge this annual observance of a chronological event.
How did I learn this? Yep, by going through a period in my life where I tried to discourage acknowledgement of my birthday and saw the adverse effect it had on family and friends.
So now I blow out the candles and eat the cake and accept gifts and tolerate the getting-older jokes; but in my mind’s eye it’s just another day, I am just me, a day older and, hopefully, a day wiser.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email email@example.com.