by Dr. David Sanders
To unlearn something, by definition, means that you have learned something already and that to one degree or another you have committed to it. Innovators and influencers for change share a commonality—they excel at unlearning. The comedian George Carlin found it funny to turn the tables on Déjà vu by proposing Vuja de as a strange feeling one gets “that none of this has ever happened before.” Little did Carlin know that his word salad would make its way to the dictionary and morph its meaning into “seeing with fresh eyes” (something you’ve seen many times before).
Childhood provides us with many learned commitments that we often need to shed about the world, about people, about what is of value. Growing up I took stories, even those clearly fictional ones I read, saw in theater or on television, as an unshakeable narrative. The Wicked Witch of the West haunted my dreams and personified the diabolical. It was clear from the events why she had it out for Dorothy but I never wondered, for why would I, to consider the circumstances that led her to be the Wicked Witch in the first place? I may have wondered why she had green skin but not how her childhood impacted her development? Then I saw Wicked.
Story after story, the most recent is captured in the film Cruella, tap into our learning to unlearn—to look with fresh eyes at people, at beliefs, at origin stories and consider simply: maybe I (we) need to unlock that firm grip on the familiar, on how we’ve always done or thought about things, and the narrative we have about someone or a group of someones.
I am always interested in the prequel—in the back story. People often ask in therapy why is it useful to delve into the past. I point out that it is not for the purpose of excusing others or themselves, but back stories provide explanations and explanations are useful for unlearning to occur. In the Tree of Life, unlearning begins at Chochmah—the seed for turning something into nothing, to get back to the source of how anything or anyone came to be (in general and in the specific), to question your commitment to what you have learned in order to see with fresh eyes.