Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment
-Rita Mae Brown
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
-Teilhard de Chardin
In my latest novel, Warm November, “experience” is a central theme. The two protagonists, Hayley and Merle are ‘women of a certain age’, i.e. they’re both fifty somethings so each can lay claim to a having a learned a certain number of life lessons but that’s where their similarity ends.
As a newly out lesbian, Hayley finds her lack of experience with women problematical in several ways. She doesn’t think she knows how to be a lesbian. She thinks lesbians tend to shun her because she used to be heterosexual. Even her avowal of ‘been there, done that’ in regards to heterosexual marriage doesn’t help much.
Merle’s long-time partner has just left her and she’s predictably devastated and not eager to start up with someone new especially, someone like Hayley who was married to a man for over twenty years and just newly out, i.e. inexperienced. She is however drawn to helping Hayley because that’s her nature.
Like me, Merle’s been clean and sober and in AA for a long time. In fiction, AA usually takes the form of the protagonist’s journey from active alcoholism to becoming sober. I wanted to do something different and look at sobriety from the point of view of someone who’s been living the sober life for a relatively long time. As Merle discovers, she may think life has become stable and predictable but it hasn’t. No way.
In AA, the idea of experience plays a very large role.
Merle’s AA friend Clea says, “Everyone has opinions. Tell me your experience and I might listen.” This speaks to our all too human inclination to mouth off about our opinions instead of sticking to what we know, i.e., our experience. AAs share their ‘experience, strength, and hope’ with other alcoholics. The experience of AA members with longer sobriety is helpful for the nervous and newly sober. The accumulation of ‘sober’ experiences of life grounds and strengthens a person’s sobriety. The oft-related experience in AA meetings of the transition between alcoholic drinking to sobriety ,called sharing one’s story, serves to remind everyone of ‘what it was like’. Hearing it again and again reinforces our commitment to staying sober.
So experience in AA or in life is generally considered to be a good thing. The common wisdom has it that experience is the great teacher. It’s true that it’s enormously helpful and tends to keeps us from repeating past mistakes. It can take the anxious edge off things like public speaking or flying where the more you do something, the less scary it seems.
But what’s the downside of experience if there is one?
How about the human tendency to assume all our all future experiences of a specific nature will be the same as a previous experience? One of the big examples of this is, of course, falling in love and being hurt and then being reluctant to fall in love again. This trope is the basis of much of romance fiction. Why are we convinced that falling in love with a new woman is going to end up the same way as falling in love with the previous ten or twenty or however many women there were? What do we learn from those experiences? Only that we’re the common denominator. Hello? What’s that tell us?
Then there’s the creeping know- it-all- ism that affects those who’ve been on the planet longer than others. I think another term for it is ‘jaded’. Or we become cynical and dismissive.
Approaching new things in life with a certain amount of caution is probably a good idea. Doing research is an excellent place to start before undertaking something new. Hayley’s good at this. She’s methodical about her search for love. Nothing is going to substitute for actual experience though, no matter how much you think you know. She still has to go through what she goes through. We all still have to do that.
I think it’s harder to be open minded as we get older. You think you’ve seen it all, but likely you haven’t. You think you can predict with accuracy how you’re going to feel, how you’re going to think. I don’t want to be that way, I want to be surprised and I want to be teachable. Maybe I do know a little something about a lot of stuff. Maybe I’ve seen and done and thing or two. Good for me. But I think there’s a lot more out there waiting for me and a whole lot more to learn. That’s one of the big reason’s I’m a writer.