Love, Learning, and a Little Bit of Risk

I took my girls to the loonie swim at our local public pool. For my readers to the south, a “loonie swim” is not necessarily a swim for crazy people, but rather a $1 public swim (the Canadian dollar coin has a loon on it, but I’m sure you already knew that). Yesterday, we had a rare day of 85F. All day, people complained about the heat. The Vancouver newscast called it “extreme heat.” No, I’m not joking. I got swept up in the “extreme heat” spirit and did what I think everybody else in Burnaby did: I took my kids to the loonie swim.

My girls (6 and 7, soon to be 7 and 8) have been working on diving all summer. Both girls set their sights on the diving board. All the way to the pool, they chattered about how they were ready to make the big jump from diving from the side of the pool to climbing the ladder and launching from the diving board. After we paid our loonies, they ran into the pool area, swam to the diving board, and got in line. However, when they arrived at the board they saw a friend from school who was not just diving, but doing flips. Suddenly, diving would not do. Both girls announced to me that they would learn how to do a flip off the diving board before the end of the night.

My oldest is a bit more like me. She’s a critical thinker, suspicious, and always processing. She’s our scientist, always testing things that we tell her to see if they are, in fact, true. My youngest is a complete mystery to me. She lives in a land of fairy dust and butterflies, a mystic who stars in her own musical. So when they come to me and ask how to do a flip, I begin describing to them what their body has to do in the air, how they should jump, what they should expect. My oldest stands at the side of the pool riveted to my lecture. She’s asking questions and trying to piece together the mechanics of the flip. My youngest is staring off into space and then, mid-sentence, she jumps over me and does a decent flip into the pool. She bobs up to the top and says “did I do it?”

My oldest continued to ask questions and think it through. She had a couple attempts where she got zero rotation. Finally, I found myself saying “just flip into the pool. You are over thinking it.” As if on cue, she jumped into the pool and did a perfect flip. She comes up to the top and says “Dad, you know what I was thinking? I just thought to myself ‘pink cupcakes.'” I have no idea what that means, but it worked.

This all reminds me of the way in which learning is an embodied, social, risky, and loving endeavor. We like to imagine ourselves as thinking beings. This goes all the way back to Descartes and our prevalent Enlightenment frameworks. We think that if we get the information right, and we plug it into individual brains, that this counts as education or even formation. We do this in school. We also (tragically) do this in church. Bible study – learning ‘facts’ about the Scriptural text or ‘information’ about God – constitutes spiritual formation. A sermon (which I’m presently avoiding the preparation of by writing this post) becomes information for individual consumption, with certain application points for the real world. In all of this, information becomes the goal, and the individual becomes the focus. God – at best – is an object for our curiosity. But learning in school is no different. When we teach science in this way we also objectify the world, the human body, animals, etc.

When I described the mechanics of the flip to my girls, I objectified ‘the flip’ in a way that distinguished it from a real body in motion, and the social environment in which my daughters became aware of ‘the flip.’ If left to my own devices, I’m guessing that neither of my girls would have flipped into the pool. It was my youngest that grew tired of my lecture and took the risk. She launched her body into the air. She experimented, and then reflected on the experiment: “Was that it? What else do I need to do?” Eventually, my oldest took the risk too. But she was armed with more information, and actually performed a better first flip than my youngest. Both approaches, though, required risk/experiment and reflection. Both also required their bodies. One cannot flip only in theory.

One last thing: I think that learning is inseparable from love or desire. What else will cause one to risk launching a body into a pool with an uncertain outcome? I wanted a dispassionate and reasoned discourse on the flip. My daughters desired to actually do it. It is their desire that plunged them into the pool. In so many ways, we become what we love and not what we think, for only love will risk launching ourselves into something unknown. And that is what it takes to learn – whether it is a flip into a pool or a journey into a the heart of God.