Learning by serendipity


You don’t have to look too far to see the South Korean flag, or, for that matter, go all that far to see Korea itself. As for the flag, it’s composed entirely of iconology from ancient wisdom. As for my short list of countries I’d be entirely happy to live in, South Korea certainly rates a spot.

As for the ancient wisdom, if it wasn’t for a friendship between some Korean laborers and a soldier in the U.S. Army, a book that introduced that wisdom to many American readers would have never been written. I refer to a favorite that I mention to Saipan Tribune readers from time to time, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. It was first published in 1974.

I used to provide passages of this book to some of my flight students so they could cultivate a broader sense of situational awareness.

Anyway, back to Pirsig’s case, his story is instructive in several ways, some inspiring, some cautionary. During an uneasy stint in college he regarded the institutional version of the “truth” as suspect. He wound up vexed by the notion and got booted from school. After that he drifted a bit and then wound up joining the Army.

He was stationed in South Korea and made friends with Korean laborers who wanted to improve their English. Pirsig and his new friends would hang out during his off-duty hours. He relates how he once told his friends, as they were enjoying a picnic, “how amazing it is that everything in the universe can be described by the 26 written characters with which they have been working.”

His friends nodded yes but said no.

This set Pirsig on the trail of wisdom that considered truth as something bigger than the words meant to represent it. This held the solution to the problem that had vexed him in college.

Freshly acquainted with this Eastern wisdom, Pirsig returned to college to study philosophy.

As things turned out his woes weren’t ending, they were just beginning, but at least a great book came out of it.

South Korea was really the pivotal point of Pirsig’s story because it provided the great discovery, the treasure, in his narrative. But outside of all the ponderous philosophical issues he discusses there’s a simpler fact to heed. Had Pirsig not been willing to interact with the Koreans to begin with, and willing to learn some of their ways and their thoughts, the pathway to his discovery, and his book, would never have opened up.

We could call this “learning by serendipity.” It might be the most powerful source of learning of all. It’s informal, it can’t be forced, it demands no tuition, it has no address, mommy and daddy can’t bribe your way in, and it grants no diplomas. You have to earn it but there aren’t any discernable standards. It’s obtained with attention, awareness, and, frequently, via kindness with strangers who might be in strange lands.

Had Pirsig spent all of his off-post hours getting drunk and looking down on the locals (South Korea was not a rich nation in the late 1940s), he would have returned to the states without his trove of exotic insights.

Saipan is really blessed on this count, given that it’s a nexus of so many interesting cultures, but to take advantage of the situation requires a certain sort of inquisitiveness that’s not always abundant here or anywhere else. Although the CNMI can buck this trend in some cases, at least for awhile, the global embrace of the electronic trance at the expense of human awareness is snowballing.

That gig started rolling long before the Internet. Here’s an observation someone made about encountering Americans who lived in cities: The people “seem to go through huge portions of their lives without much consciousness of what’s immediately around them… You don’t count…You’re not on TV.”

Whose observation is that? It’s Pirsig’s in Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

April will bring the second anniversary of Robert Pirsig’s passing. But his observations, well, they will never go away. In the meantime, I don’t have to look far for a reminder: the South Korean flag will do just fine.


Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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