Op/Ed

Lessons in listening: Leaning into learning

My daughter, Ellie, is nearing her last days as a student at Vergennes Union Elementary School. Earlier this week she received a welcome video from the Middle School, containing a virtual tour of the school and short welcome clips from her prospective teachers. She watched it a few times and then invited us to join her in an after-dinner showing, as she narrated and forewarned us of particularly amusing parts beforehand. The visuals and playfulness of the teachers eased a bit of her early angst and provided a mental bridge for her anticipated path forward as a middle schooler. It also prompted us to take a walk past her current school and across the athletic fields towards her future learning space, as she postulated where her friends and she will meet up and walk together come fall.
As she moves forward, my mind drifts back to the beginning of her formal educational journey as a kindergartener. As I reflect from my current state of mind, what stands out for me was her exhaustion at the end of those early days. She frequently wore a dazed expression and it wasn’t uncommon to have her start to doze during dinner. Going to school was a life step that I understandably couldn’t take with her, so during that first week I met her with a plethora of questions ranging from the standard “what did you learn” to the minute details of which part of her lunch she enjoyed. Her answers invariably ranged from “I don’t know” to “I don’t remember.” One day she finally quieted my persistent inquiry with a request to “just ride in silence” together. In honor of her self-advocacy, we settled into quiet. 
It made sense she was worn out. Once I put my curiosity aside, it was obvious that her brain was overloaded from all the new learning. Her environment was completely novel, from her teachers’ names to where the bathroom was located. Without her familiar structure of life, her mind was constantly at work, creating new processes and patterns. In hindsight I guess I’m fortunate she merely asked me for quiet instead of launching into an absolute tantrum!
Most of us would grant a five-year-old the room for mental fatigue, as entering school is a sanctioned transition. Interestingly, though, these last few months have brought into question whether we afford our adult learning selves the same latitude. In meeting with patients, the experience of fatigue coupled with bewilderment regarding their fatigue has been pretty near universal. They wonder how they can be so tired when their lives are superficially less busy. 
The truth is that learning how to navigate a new environment can be exhausting, whether you are five or seventy-five and the real work of this time isn’t in our visible activities of life, it is our internal process of adaptation. Learning is the slow part of change and it doesn’t fit neatly onto a to-do list. Our brains are engaged in creating new pathways, and that requires energy. So, if exhaustion has been one of your many states of being during the last few months, rest assured that your body’s response is natural and healthy.
It is a rare aspect of life that hasn’t had to be adjusted of late. We are learning new approaches to access necessities, such as food and healthcare. We are learning new procedures as we move forward as business owners and employees. At both the individual and community level, we are learning how to pivot and maneuver new systems and resources to ensure our viability. We are learning new ways to be friends and family to each other. We are also learning to stay with discomfort and disappointment, and in doing so we are building our capacity to fully experience our lives.
A significant outcome of this learning is that we have stopped waiting for life to go back to “normal.” We are finding ways forward by letting go and accepting today as it is — with all it’s impermanence. For many this impermanence is mirrored in our natural world, as we witness the unfolding of spring. As I write the apple blossoms are in full bloom. When you read this, their pedals will have fallen. In Vermont we choose this truth. 
Another outcome of our new learning is the ability to delight in simple gestures. We feel heartfelt gratitude toward others for a quiet hello or a simple note. If there ever was a time to genuinely ask someone how they are and then truly listen, it is now. It reminds us that we are not alone. 
On that note, I will leave you with Matt Dibley’s wise words: “Be nice to each other out there people.”
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Laura Wilkinson is a Nurse Practitioner and Health Coach at her practice, Village Health. Learn more about Village Health at villagehealthvt.com

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