How to Know What You Must Learn Next

how to know

“Every man on this planet is taking his initiation in love.”

                    – Florence Shinn, The Game of Life and How to Play It

Initiations in love can be painful because they require that we learn disturbing things about ourselves, that we confront our selfishness, self absorption, and destructive behaviors.  Shying away in fear, we may resist our needed learning and even reject it completely, abandoning our very soul.

But once we discover that learning to love is the purpose of our life, it is pretty easy to identify what we need to learn next.

We often need a personal crisis to catapult us into learning what we must learn next.

I remember the moment clearly when I realized fully what a crisis I was in.  I was splitting wood behind my beautiful new house in the middle of a lovely wood.

Normally, I was joyful splitting the hard, knarly, black ash, feeling strong as I hurled my splitting axe over and over into the resistant wood, then triumphing as the log came apart, releasing an amazing fragrance hidden inside.

But that day I was empty, almost paralyzed with grief and self-recognition.

My third wife had left me.

I was stunned.  I was in my fifties, a mature man who thought he had wisdom, a CEO of a national laboratory, a coach to leaders,  a father, a grandfather.

I stopped chopping and gazed off into the fading twilight.  I had never felt more forlorn, unconfident, lost.

The full knowledge of my failure to love my wife became clear to me at that moment.

I was in a crisis.

I wondered if I had blown my chances permanently—failed one too many times at love to be able to recover.

I couldn’t see how my life might again be successful and happy.

My only hope was that I could learn what I had to learn and would get another chance at love.

Luckily, it wasn’t too late, I would learn what I had to learn, and I would find the love of my dreams.

Here’s what I learned:

First, even if you have been slow to learn what you must learn about love, it’s never too late.

I grew up watching a painful marriage.  I never heard my parents say to each other, “I love you.”  I did hear lots of arguments.  I felt loved by my caring but bound-up parents even though they never said, “I love you” to my sister and me.  I don’t remember any hugs.  There were never any conversations with my parents about what my future might be. Not one.

So I jumped into a marriage at 18 with my 17 year-old girlfriend whose family was not much more of a model of a loving family than mine.  We improved on our parents’ family life, learning something about love, but ultimately failed at it and ended our marriage in a bitter divorce after 18 years.

I read about marriage research.  I studied the great masters of awareness in various religions to discover what they knew about successful living.  I read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm and many other beautiful treatments of the subject.

And I jumped into a second marriage barely out of the first one, wanting to be loved no doubt, and only a bit more able to give it. We didn’t learn more about love together, and the love we had wasn’t enough to hold us together for very long.

I exchanged love with several more partners, gaining knowledge, but remaining more interested in getting love than giving it.

Finally, I met my third wife, a woman who left loved people in her wake wherever she went.  I learned a lot about love from her generosity, warmth, and joy of life.

But I didn’t learn enough, and she left after 13 years, letting me go as gently as she could.

I was finally humbled enough to wake up to my incomplete initiation in love.  I saw that I still had been unable to say, “I love you” easily and fully.

I saw that I still lacked the physical warmth needed to convince someone of my affection.

I saw that to love someone is to see and pursue his or her potential, even if pursuing that potential meant moving away from me.

And then I met Mary and she loved me and invited me to love her.  And when I didn’t do love well enough, she showed me how to do it with a firm faith in my ability to learn.

I can now do most of the things that love requires.  Mary says she feels loved by me every day.  Every hour.

My memoir could be titled, Awake at Last!.

Second, I’ve learned that feedback is a gift from heaven. 

We need feedback from others about how we’re doing in our relationships.  We probably can never get enough honest feedback.

Lots of people in my life have given me feedback about my thinking and behavior—wives, my children, friends, and colleagues.  But I usually thought I had deeper insights about me than they did: I usually thought that they were somewhat off the mark.

One wife told me, “You’re the hardest person to imprint that I’ve ever met.”

When Mary used to say that I was being critical, a pattern of mine that had infected many of my relationships, I finally heard someone who loves me say that I was not being loving with her.

I needed lots of feedback. It took me way too long to finally get it about my predilection to criticize.  But Mary’s love saw enough potential in me that she didn’t give up.

She kept giving me feedback.  We talked at length about what each of us needed to learn.  In the give and take of learning, I gradually let go of my ego resistance.

I finally saw my own weakness behind my criticisms.

I finally stopped needing to be right.

At last, I am able to hear this kind of feedback the first time I receive it.

And I am able to act on the feedback immediately, without resisting, arguing, or self-justifying.

Now I can say, “Thanks for the feedback.  I see that you are right. I think I’ve got it, and you won’t  have to encounter that negative pattern in me anymore.  But if you do, please let me know right away.  I’m lucky to have your careful attention.  I love you.”

I’ve learned that love requires that I be humble and alert, wide open to how I’m effecting others.

Finally, I’ve learned that I am loved when someone sees my potential and goes after it by shining a light into my dark corners.

Nothing is more valuable than loving feedback about our next steps in learning.

I am enjoying my initiation in love.

Every day seems like a good day to love.

How lucky I am to have Mary to love every day.

What good fortune to have my family to love.  To have my friends, acquaintances and the human race to love.

To all of you who have given me love in the form of insight, kindness, generosity, helpfulness, understanding, encouragement, and—at times—tough love, to all of you who have assisted me in my initiation into love, I say thank you. I love you.

Photo by Marketa

14 thoughts on “How to Know What You Must Learn Next”

  1. I enjoyed this and came away with a bit of the glow and inspiration behind the rising of your sun.

    I think the title of the post was misleading… I came away not with any sense of what to learn next, but much more with the sense that I need to be more attendant in my loving relationships. Which is in many ways a better thing to come away with.


    1. Wow, tears are falling down my face. You made me realize with clarity that I am at a point in life where I am incapable of neither giving nor receiving love. Whenever someone has tried to show any type of love or care for me, I end up pushing them away and end up alone. Not saying I blame them, because a person can only try for so long when they are constantly pushed away. I don’t know if I ever knew how to love or to let people in. Like you, I grew up with parents who did not know how to show love, but unlike you, I have never felt loved by them. Growing up, I was pretty much on my own. My mom was doing drugs, my dad was a workaholic, who I was intimidated by and I always felt all alone in the world. Things got real bad when my family moved, again, at the age of 14. I was so angry, so scared, and so sad all the time, but no one seemed to notice or care. I remember coming home with a black eye after being assaulted and raped and not one person in my family asked what happened or if I was ok. So, I spent the next 20 years punishing myself, as well as others, with drugs and alcohol, ending up on the streets and in jail or in one rehab after another. Nine years ago, I gave birth to my son Christian, who means more to me than life itself. He is probably the only reason I am still here today. I tell him I love him everyday and hug him all the time. Saying that, I feel selfish for bringing him into this world and on top of that, for keeping him and not giving him to a family that knows how to care for and love him the way he deserves to be loved and cared for. I’ve been to therapy, psychiatrists, tried DBT, CBT and AA/NA meetings. I’m beginning to feel there is something fundamentally wrong with me because I just can’t seem to get a grip and be happy. I don’t even know where I’m going with this. Anyway, good article and thanks for listening.

      1. Kim, Thank you for sharing your story here. Actually, I feel a lot of love coming from you today. You love your son, Life has given you this boy to love, and you are giving it to him. He came out of you and he is your assignment as you take your initiation in love, as Florence Shinn says in my opening quote.

        And you are still looking and listening. You are not defeated; you are still seeking, reading the Change blog and responding. You’ve sought plenty of input in various programs, so you have guts. You’ve learned plenty. You may be discouraged, but you haven’t quit.

        Has anybody ever apologized for the suffering you experienced over the beating and rape that traumatized you? For that guy who lived in darkness and couldn’t own up, and for your family who couldn’t see and couldn’t hear because of their own problems, I ask your forgiveness. Go free.

        As I said in my post, it’s never too late. You wouldn’t be writing your comment here if it was too late. Your initiation in love continues.

        You are love, so get busy loving. Then love will come flowing back. Everything we put out comes back. Everything. Always.

        I love you. Gary

      2. Our childhood is the foundation of who we become as an adult. People will always say it is ultimately your responsibility on the choices you make in life but first you have to detox the demons that were planted in your mind and your heart from infancy. Love is the four letter word that has many people confused and sad because of the lessons that sometimes take so long to figure out. A loveless childhood is a very lonely place and can take years of soul searching to get over. Thank you for sharing your story with such honesty Gary, I think there are many people that will be able to relate to it. Yes, love can come into your life at any time and it is never too late to learn how to receive it. <3 Susan

    2. M, Thanks for your comment. I see what you mean about the title: I don’t think I made the link clearly enough. I have, though, concluded that everything significant that we have to learn next has to do with learning how to love. I notice that all of our major problems come from failures to love, so I agree with Florence Shinn in the quote opening my piece. Gary

  2. Beautiful commentary on love & encouraging to see such a soul open to learn, open to grow. This is a testimony to human resilience; to have had the brokenness of 3 sad endings yet; not only were you still open to love again, you were open to see your own shortcomings & do something about them ; to learn, to grow , to change. That is inspiring. Many people get bitter, blame others or assume that is how their life is supposed to be- and they’d stop trying to rise above it! Your family & friends have a blessing to have you. I hope they learn from you.
    This inspires me to be open to criticism. Although I am in a happy marriage of 32 years, there is always room to learn how to love others better & always room to grow.
    May God bless you and bless Mary!

    1. Patty, Thanks for your warm and loving comment. I see that many, maybe most, people have only a vague idea about the rigors of learning. My experience and observations convince me that it takes a warrior with the heart of a lion to learn what is most important.

      To learn how to love, we have to destroy our egos, a tough and long battle. But we can win that battle, a warrior’s battle with his or her weaknesses. At the end of that battle, we are humble and alert, poised, our hearts wide open and joyful.

      We can’t really learn how to love as long as we feel sorry for ourselves. The battle with self-pity and victimhood is a very difficult battle, but worth every bit of the challenge. How to win that battle is the subject of my book, Poise: A Warrior’s Guide.

      It doesn’t sound, Patty, as if you need much criticism, but for fun you could ask your loving husband, “What would you most like me to learn next in order to change something about the way I am” Most husbands would be astounded to hear such a question.

      Thanks again for your loving thoughts. Gary

  3. Have to disagree on the second point. A self responsible way of saying it should be: develope the ability to receive feedback. I am sure your previous wives have given you feedback in different ways. However you were the one not ready to receive it at the time. So the way you put it is actually kind of irresponsible/egoistic (That you changed because you met the right person rather than yourself learn to get rid of your ego, which was the core issue) and unfair to your other ex-wives. it is not necessarily about Mary giving better feedback than your other wives, it is now you are at a place to listen better.

  4. Feedback of love is as important as giving love, so you can keep on loving & growing, Sometimes people are afraid to show it, fear are not getting feedback, knowing somebody loves you is one time, feeling is another.

  5. Hello Gary,
    your words are full of wisdom. I like how you share your story openly. I thought I was a tough person, but somehow life always seems to find a way to knock me down. After a while, I feel that I have no energy left within me.
    At this low point, a person has to find meaning by looking only on the bright side of things. Perhaps by ending the relationship you dodged a bullet.
    I believe in fate and that things are meant to be for a certain reason. Like you said, we all grow out of these experiences and become better people.
    Once an old man told me, “be like a nail on wood. The harder it gets hammered, the stronger it holds.”
    Gary, you are a NAIL :)

  6. I am new to this website and appreciate the pouring out of your soul per say. I am going through a relationship crisis right now with my 33yr old daughter who decided to dump all she thought I did wrong as a mother and person since she was 18.long story short part of me is appreciative another hurt and another sad. And yet I know there is hope through Christ to restore a even better relationship with her. Politics, religious beliefs and death of her father all play a large part in our relationship . thanks for allowing me to vent little.

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