11. What Is Experience?

Let’s begin with a definition. There are many to choose from, but I like this one from Merriam-Webster:

The conscious events that make up an individual life

It's short, sweet and accurate.

Maybe I should stop writing here. The question I posed in the header has been answered.

But full understanding demands we dive a bit deeper. We need to break everything down into its component parts and see how they interact.

Let's start with 'Conscious Events'.

'Conscious'

Consciousness is a given. Without it, we experience nothing. It's one of the fundamental principles of human life, shared by all. There can be no varying interpretations. If we are not conscious we've either had a severe blow to the head, been anaesthetised, or we're dead.

'Events' 

This is where things start to get confusing. Let's look at a few synonyms for the word 'event'.

  • Happening

  • Occurrence

  • Episode

  • Incident

  • EXPERIENCE

Hmm, So that means we could rewrite that Merriam-Webster definition of 'experience' as:

The conscious experiences that make up an individual life

So if we experience enough experiences we can build up our experience and call ourselves experienced.

Don't you just love the English language?

We tend to reserve the word 'experience' for the more meaningful events in our lives. A few examples:

  • A life-changing experience

  • A near-death experience

  • An out-of-body experience

  • A mystical experience

An 'event' can be more mundane than that, but still unusual and important enough to leave some lasting impression.

It's here that we start to see some variances. Because what may be 'unusual' and 'important' to one individual may be 'routine' and 'irrelevant' to another.

I'm betting you can remember the first time you drove a car. I know I can, even though it was nearly half a century ago! It was a big deal at the time, and the impression it made was lasting, but for years now I’ve considered driving as nothing unusual.

How old we are affects the process as well. As young children everything is new to us, and we're open and willing to learn. But with age comes 'experience' and a gradual decline in openness. "Don't try to teach your Granny to suck eggs" eh?

It’s the new, impactful and unexpected events that leave the most impression on us. After our Covid-19 ‘experience’ it’s likely we’ll all react a bit differently the next time we hear of some new virus affecting folks in a far-flung corner of the planet.

OK, where are we at?

We’ve established that we’re conscious. We’ve established that we’ve all had things happen to us during our lives, call them events or experiences, it doesn’t matter. What matters is if they made a lasting impression on us or not. Because it’s those impressions that make us who we are; that make up our lives.

So, impressions are important. Let’s make sure we understand what they are.

Another definition needed:

'Impression'

An idea, feeling, or opinion about something or someone, especially one formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little evidence

That’s a wide interpretation, isn’t it? There are more ideas, feelings and opinions kicking about than there are people on the planet.

If a thousand people witnessed the same event simultaneously would they all be left with a similar ‘impression’? Would they all be left with the same idea, feeling or opinion about it? We know the answer to that.

In the art world there’s a style of painting called ‘Impressionism’. Impressionist artists were not trying to paint a reflection of real life, but an ‘impression’ of what the person, light, atmosphere, object or landscape looked like to them. They worked quickly, ignoring the detail to focus on light and colour. Get too close to an Impressionist painting, and it will seem like a big, incomprehensible mess. But take a few steps back, and your eyes will adjust to its blurriness.

Philip Wilson Steer - Girls Running, Walberswick Pier 1888–94 

We're all impressionists. We take a quick blurry 'first impression' snapshot of something and instantly form an opinion based on what we see.

And what's an opinion?

A view or judgement about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

So not that different from an impression then? Except impressions tend to be transient, opinions more permanent.

Impression forms opinion, opinion deforms truth!” ― Abhijit Kar Gupta

We know this. We use phrases like 'as I see it', 'in my book' and 'to my way of thinking'. Those words acknowledge that we may not be right, and that we're open to alternatives. But nine times out of ten we don't mean that, we'll say these things with the certainty our opinion is correct. We state our case and defy anyone to argue. We're far from open.

So, remind me, what's this got to do with experience again?

Let's summarise.

  • Things happen (EVENTS)

  • We get impressions about them (probably wrong)

  • These impressions lead us to form opinions (EXPERIENCE)

  • Those experiences guide our actions through life.

If we accept this is so, then something becomes apparent. 

Understanding how we see and interpret the events in our lives is crucial to our well-being.

We'll explore that next week.