There’s nothing like learning a new language or working with a different culture to point out the cultural assumptions you’ve been taught.  I remember a conversation in my first year of college where two of my friends who were science and math majors were laughing about the straight line being the shortest distance between two points.  They were laughing because this is only true in short distances.  Because of the curvature of the earth, if you’re talking about overland or even air travel, then the shortest distance is a curve, not a line.  Of course that lead them into discussions of traveling directly through the earth and plotting densities and into theoretical maths that I couldn’t comprehend and somewhere I threw in Cthulhu and things went awry in the ways such conversations do.

The conversation is memorable to me because it was the first time I realized that what is taught as common sense can be something other than true.  Like urban myths it can be something that is “true” because we all “know it” and it has been spoken forever.  But other groups, other cultures, see things very differently and for them this piece of common sense is neither.  Which showed up again for me when working with my Native American elders.  Having not grown up on the reservation and not in a Native community, I had an amazing mixture of majority culture assumptions that clashed with Native ones at random times.  My value of straight lines and straight line thinking was one of these.

Native cultures see life as a journey of creation and experience, of gathering energy in order to release it for the benefit of everyone and anyone who needs it.  This is true from the micro to the macro, from the smallest of acts to the largest of life plans.  Think of this like a spring.  The coils contain potential energy, gathering more if they are compressed.  A spring is strong because of the material gathered in its rings and it’s able to express that energy at any moment.  If it’s straightened out it becomes longer, but weaker and it has no energy to expend.  In order to amass energy it has to be bent.  Hence rebar is not very useful as one straight piece, but amazingly strong, used in foundations and to create structure when it is meshed with other pieces of rebar or bent into various forms.

In terms of living there is the aphorism, “Life is about the journey, not the destination.”  Which, is comforting until the airline loses your luggage and you find you’re on the wrong plane.  Trying to learn something through the straight line method, learning exactly what’s necessary through information dump and testing or recitation as a means of assuring that the information has been learned provides only information.  Learning in a spiral method, learning this thing through this conversation which leads you over here to try this which allows you to this opportunity which brings you to your goal but in a way that you never conceived, that interweaves a life of such variety and interest and skill with so much wisdom and experience to share that the goal becomes secondary to the life.  Which is as it should be.