As we Christians worldwide recently celebrated our Holy Week of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, I realized that I was not familiar with the word Maundy so I looked up its etymology. It is from the Latin mandatum, meaning mandate or order. It comes from Jesus' teaching in John 13:34, urging us to love one another and saying that this was his new commandment. Christ is mandating us to love. At the Last Supper, Christ washed his disciples' feet and showed the importance of serving rather than being served and loving, even by humbling oneself, rather than waiting to be loved.
Digging into the etymology of the new words I encounter keeps me busy, and these on-going learning moments enrich me. After I learned about Maundy Thursday, I learned the meaning of the word "phlebotomist" in a less pleasant way, from the person who was drawing blood from me the other day. These experiences belong to the category of acquiring information and knowledge.
Another important category of learning moments is the acquisition of skills and techniques such as learning to type, play the piano, ski and swim, and many other skilled activities. I remember how disappointed my golf instructors were as I clumsily swung the club with poor coordination. My piano teacher also sighed as she tried to teach me how to play.
I read in Maxwell Gladwell's book, "Outliers," that anyone who reached the top in music had to put in 10,000 hours of practice developing their skill and understanding of music. Talent alone isn't enough to raise anyone to the master level. Hard work and learning must be combined with the gifts one is born with to bear fruit, even for a genius like Mozart.
Another category of learning comes in moments of profound awakening to life lessons that propel us to live a different life. In his book, "Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy," author Carlos Eire relates his learning moment of letting go of his intense longing for the Cuba that he left behind in 1962 as an eleven-year-old boy as one of the "Pedro Pan" children who were airlifted from Cuba to Miami without their parents between 1960 and 1962. He came to understand that the only way for him to survive and thrive in his adopted country was put to death his attachment to all things of the past. He succeeded in his efforts and has been living a fruitful life as a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University. When I met Prof. Eire at the Cuban Institute in Miami a couple of years ago, I sensed that he was at peace. As an immigrant myself, his process of "learning to die" in Miami, to put the past behind to move forward, certainly resonates with me. I personally had to go through something of the same learning process.
In the book, "Cost of Discipleship," Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out that losing one's life for a worthy cause is a part of the price a believer must pay to follow our righteous God. He died in a German prison because of his courageous outspokenness against Nazi Germany's horrid murder of Jews through concentration camps among other wicked war crimes.
Another book that I cherish is Corrie ten Boom's "Hiding Place": it chronicles her family's rescue work in the Netherlands for the Jews who had to hide from the Gestapo who were sending them to the death camps during World War II. Most of her family members died in concentration camps because of their heroic work saving the persecuted Jews. They knew it was evil and they risked their lives saving Jews. Where did they learn to be so brave? It was in their faith in God. Where did they learn to act so fearlessly? They were compelled to follow their conviction because they wanted to follow God's commandment to love all people. Prompted by their Christian belief to do justice, they followed their hearts when most people in Europe had averted their eyes from the annihilation of Jews and others systematically carried out by the German forces under Hitler.
Sometimes I find myself confronted with prejudice, I am sorry to say, from Koreans who make biased remarks about African-Americans. For me, I feel compelled to speak up against this kind of prejudice, but it takes great effort: my heart palpitates and flutters as I try to point out how wrong they are from my own experience over the years living and worshipping with people of color. I doubt I can do Corrie ten Boom's work but I know that, as Mother Teresa said, we can all do small things with great love.
Learning is an unending, on-going effort. Mahatma Gandhi's instruction is an excellent reminder: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."
Hyon O'Brien is a former reference librarian now living in the United States. She can be reached at email@example.com.