The other day I was driving home and started to think about how long I’ve “been in school.”

I started my journey in kindergarten at Benito Martinez Elementary in Fort Hancock, Texas, way back in the mid-1970s. I still remember the bright blue and red vinyl plastic “briefcase” my mother bought me to take the first day of school. I remember how I cried my eyes out when I realized I wanted to go home when she left me with my future classmates and teacher, Mrs. Folkes. Even though I had two aunts and both grandmothers who lived less than a couple minutes walk from the elementary school schoolyard, I wanted to go back home – now.

I started to tally up my years of “schoolin.'” Four years in elementary school, including kindergarten. Five years in junior high. Four years in high school. Four-ish years in undergraduate school to get my BA in communication at Trinity University in San Antonio-I had to spend an additional summer making up for deficiencies in my high school transcript. Then I spent four years to complete my MBA in marketing, all while working full-time at a pretty intense job. And now, in my most recent stint, I’ve already spent five years in pursuit of my PhD. I estimate I have a couple more years to complete my dissertation and earn my doctorate in Human Sexuality.

That’s already 26 years to this point. I’ve quite literally been “in school” for longer than I’ve been alive.

Embracing a life of learning

Every time my mom or dad bring up my education, we chuckle because it always ends with “Well…when are you going to be done?” My latest response is usually “Technically, in a couple of years.” They often shake their heads and smile because the know when I say “technically,” I mean “perhaps, but not likely.”

In the world of human resources and personal development, in the alphabet soup of theories and of labels, one of the favorite buzzwords people use is “life learner.” It basically means that you are the kind of person who is always seeking knowledge, whether it is formal or otherwise. Reading. Taking workshops. Seeking information. When someone says you are a “life learner,” what they mean is that you have a natural hunger to absorb whatever information and experiences are available in the world.

Although I like to think of myself as a pragmatist, an activist, and a “go-getter,” I really can’t deny that perhaps the life learner label fits with me.

The origins of learning and connecting in the world

One summer, a World Encyclopedia salesman knocked on our front door. After he completed his pitch, he had convinced my mom to purchase not only an entire World Book Encyclopedia set, but two very large dictionaries, and a series of books of brilliant colors that were basically encyclopedia volumes for wee people – I think it was called Childcraft Encyclopedia.

We weren’t exactly wealthy. Spending money on such things would require budgeting and saving on other items. I think my dad grumbled that the books were a waste of money, but my mother thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have them around for school and learning.

To give you some perspective on my parents’ values, my dad bought me a three-wheeler motorcycle when I was nearing the end of elementary school. That purchase had my mother grumbling in the same way he did when she purchased the encyclopedias. That will tell you how different my parents minds were in terms of what should be important to me. Both were wonderful gifts.

I remember the brown bookshelf where we used to keep those encyclopedia volumes. Over the years, especially on super hot summer days when my cousins were content sweating in the dry desert and playing outside in the blistering 100-degree heat of West Texas, I would opt to spend many of my hours under the air conditioner, reading and re-reading that set of encyclopedias. I kid you not, I must have read those books over and over and over, cover to cover. Others just shook their heads because they thought reading was boring and I always had my head stuck in a book.

The mind as an invitation to the world – and to the body

For the most part, I didn’t really care. I loved to read about far away places, about interesting people, and about events in the world. I wasn’t doing it because I knew it would be helpful. I was curious. I wanted to know how things worked. I wanted to dream about what I could do, where I could go, and what I would be in the world.

And when I did get tired of reading, I would hop on my three-wheeler motorcycle and head out into the sandy hills behind our town’s only high school to explore the desert. The bushes, the wildlife, and the terrain were a healing way to get out of my head, to get away, and to see at least a very small part of the outside world in action.

There were two clues in my childhood that only now have come to make sense in my journey. The first is that it is equally valuable to be connected to the mind, the body, and the spirit. The second is that I was blessed with two parents who were so different in their interests. Although I was not able at that time to put “two and two together,” I now realize that these life skills and interests would be critical as I grew up and journeyed into my future.

I don’t regret the life I’ve had thus far, the struggles I’ve gone through, and the choices I’ve made. I wouldn’t be who I am without them.

The evolution of purpose of learning

As I become older and continue to live my years of experience, what it means to be a “life learner” has shifted significantly. As a young boy, learning was about curiosity. As I became a teenager, learning became about exploration, and that exploration continued until well into my early adulthood. In my early thirties, learning became about trying to determine meaning. In my late thirties and into my forties, my search for meaning shifted into grounding myself in true life purpose.

Now, as I am approaching my fifties, I realize that my focus in my learning has shifted again. It is now about expansion of awareness and acceptance.

A friend who is journeying with me in our PhD program shared a comic strip with me that is passed around in academic circles. The gist of the comic strip is “the more you learn, the less you know.” And that statement, as I’m learning, is incredibly true. At least, the more you learn, the less you realize you know. The world, and our life experiences, can be infinite. The journey is joyous. The path is painful. There are gifts and surprises. There is devastation and loss. And getting through it all can be a struggle, until you welcome all of these experiences and teachings, all together. Then you can truly embrace the gift of life.

Moving forward

So the next time I sit with my mom and dad, and they ask me about my endless journey in education, I’m pretty sure that I will share that I plan to end my formal education with this latest degree, “technically.” But, I will never stop learning. I will never stop exploring. I will never stop trying to understand what I am able to understand, and simultaneously embrace and appreciate those things I am not meant to understand. Those are the true gifts of mystery.

I will never cease to remind myself that I should celebrate all the experiences that life gifts to me.

Photo credit: Photo by Olenka Kotyk on Unsplash