Fool me twice

Today, I was carrying two paper cups filled with Starbucks coffee as I approached an obstacle standing between me and my destination: the heavy glass doors of the campus center, the Little Building (which is oddly enormous). Hmmmm, what to do. I did a quick assessment of the situation in my head. I could either 1) stack the two cups on top of one another and use my free hand to open the door, 2) put the cups down on the sidewalk, open the door, and pick them back up again, 3) wait for someone to come through the door and quickly duck in, or 4) keep both cups in their respective hands and open the door with my pinky. Practicality not being my strong suit, I chose the option involving the most useless finger on my hand.

Here's what happened: my pinky didn't have the strength to open the door on its own, so as it strained, the other fingers clenched in commiseration. The pressure the other fingers exerted on the paper cup caused it to cave in the middle, and the caving caused a rising force from within, which in turn popped the lid off the coffee. Which spilled all over me. Don't you feel sorry for me?

This might influence your sympathy: I've made this same exact mistake about five times over.

So here's my thought. If, after several hot, sticky messes, I can't learn that option #4 will have the least desirable outcome, how long does it take for us to learn from the other mistakes in our lives which don't have an immediately correlative consequence? How often do we repeat self-destructive patterns despite our conscious or subconscious understanding that no good can come? Experience is a powerful tool - its purpose is to prevent us from continually making the wrong decision in the critical moment. But how often is our ability to learn from experience temporarily on the fritz?

I used to imagine that experience is the secret recipe for an untroubled life. If you've been through something before, you're bound to handle it better the second time around. Maybe even flawlessly. And certainly there is some supporting evidence to back that theory.

But it would follow that if we haven't learned from a mistake, which we then repeat, we obviously didn't recognize it as a correctable mistake in the first place. We can't trace the events leading up to that particular personal calamity back to its critical moment. We can't define the instant when things started to go wrong. And so we self-inflict pain, frustration, failure, or sadness, again and again. We can't locate the point at which we discarded options #1 through #3, and chose to go with the pinky plan. And so, we can't sidestep the result.

I've spent the past half hour pre-treating, rinsing, scrubbing, and cursing, trying to get the coffee out of my favorite khaki pants. But it won't come out. It's just another stain - an unerasable reminder of lessons, as of yet, still not learned.