I read once that “you should never make a rule of your experience,” and the idea still haunts me from time to time.
As a writer, I think about my experiences all the time. I use them to guide my way of life and my perception of reality.
My experiences shape the way I process information and relate to others. They help me form opinions and ideas and give me a framework to make sense of the world.
I use my experiences to create “rules” for myself all the time.
For instance, I believe people should help each other because I’ve experienced the benefits and power of people helping each other firsthand.
But let’s say someone else has a different experience. Let’s say Jim has seen the harmful effects of people helping each other. He’s seen how it creates codependence and discourages individual motivation and drive. Jim believes that people shouldn’t help others; they should focus on helping themselves to make society stronger, and he makes that rule based on his experience.
The problem — and beauty — with this situation is that both of our experiences are valid, and both of our experiences tell us something important about the nature of helping others, in general.
Sometimes we need to help, and sometimes helping hurts.
Oftentimes, we say experiences are imperfect methods of assessing issues. People can have any number of different experiences based on their age, gender, race, religion, personality or personal background. We say experiences are subjective to how individuals perceive them, and they aren’t easily quantifiable. A positive experience for me might be mediocre, or even negative, for you.
But sharing our experiences allows us to learn something from each other, which brings me to my problem with never making rules out of our experiences. It seems to undermine the importance of experiences rather than call attention to the bigger issue with rules.
I’ve always hated it when people discounted experiences in arguments and debates because experiences are often the things that matter most to us. They tap into our deepest emotions, ideas and beliefs. They affect our lifestyles and ways of thinking. They help us see from another person’s perspective, and they are endlessly unique.
We shouldn’t discount experiences because they help us understand the world and find our place in it. If we don’t allow experiences to shape us, inspire us or change us, we might as well be numb. We might as well be dead.
But the problem with experiences comes in when we use them to create rules for everyone else instead of using them to share our ideas with other people. It’s one thing to use our experiences to help us express ourselves, but it’s another thing to say that our experiences define all experiences ever.
To the skeptic, it might sound like I’m condoning a watered down version of universalism here. Like I’m telling you not to believe in any one truth, or saying we should allow individual beliefs to shape our worldviews instead of submitting to a higher order. But that’s not what I’m getting at.
I believe there are certain truths, like murder is wrong. But I also believe that life is more complicated than that, and what do you do when killing one person saves another person’s life? When murdering a criminal saves a child?
What I’m saying is that there are experiences in which our most unthinkable wrongs become reasonable. Times when even the most obvious rules require us to wade into the murky waters of morality, and reach around for the best options we can find. And when we share our experiences or open our minds to the experiences of others, we allow ourselves to learn something in the process.
In the end, it doesn’t make murder right, but it does give us a new way of thinking about it, and it helps us have greater grace for what we deem wrong.
When we make rules, we’re saying the answers are obvious, and it doesn’t take much consideration, so we aren’t learning. We’re saying our way is how it is, instead of I wonder why it is this way.
We’re focusing on convincing rather than sharing, and when we focus on convincing, we take the wonder out of our experiences and use them as swords to divide the right from wrong.
We strip all of the intricate complications out of situations and cripple our ability to understand or to see from different perspectives.
We lose our capacity to relate and to consider what's lurking in the shadows of our own blind spots.
Our experiences are valid, but they are not the only valid experiences that exist. In the age of information and polarizing propaganda, it's easy to see experiences as rules. To think all people who believe or act in a certain way are just that way instead of asking how or why it is that they feel the way they do.
But if each of us did that with our different backgrounds, beliefs and ideas, then we’d only ever be crossing swords and starting fights.
Instead of making one-size-fits-all rules about our experiences or trying to convince people we’re right, why don’t we use experiences to learn and understand?
One of my favorite programs on NPR is The Moth Radio Hour. The Moth is a program where people from all walks of life tell personal stories to a live audience, just as they remember them. No convincing arguments. No judgments. Being right or wrong is not the point. It’s more about sharing experiences.
When people ask me why I blog and share my opinions online, I tell them I do it for the same reason. It’s not about giving you rules to follow, telling you to agree with me, or framing myself as the ultimate authority on everything. It’s about sharing personal stories and ideas — even though your stories might be totally different.
There’s a time and a place for facts and hard figures, persuasive speeches and compelling arguments. But experiences also have value in our attempts to understand ourselves, our world and each other. Raw and subjective, they teach us things that we might not realize if we focused on the facts alone, and hopefully, we can use them to learn, even when we disagree.