Walt Whitman - em Camden, 1891

“Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned the great lessons of those who rejected you, and braced themselves against you? or who treated you with contempt, or disputed the passage with you?”

In the Canadian public school system, at least in my own experience, we didn’t spend all that much time exploring some of the great American authors and poets. For this reason, I never really got exposed to Walt Whitman until I decided to watch Dead Poets Society on my own some years later. Having sifted through a passage or two, I’m now intrigued by some of his writings.

The quote above comes from Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems by Walt Whitman. Many of us prefer the comforts of being around like-minded individuals with similar goals, similar philosophies and similar outlooks on life. We gravitate toward our idols, because they are who we aspire to be. We learn from them, just as we learn from those who admire us.

That can give us a sense of strength and, perhaps more important, a sense of belonging. By our very nature, we may be averse to conflict. We seek positive experiences that re-affirm our existing positions, but that is not how we can grow as human beings. We have to get out of the echo chamber and seek out those who are different from us or who have opinions who differ from our own.

How many invaluable life lessons can a Wall Street broker learn from the humble Buddhist monk? What great insights can the master chef provide to the theoretical physicist? What can a Republican gain by exploring and debating issues with a Democrat?

You can learn much from your friends, but you can learn even more from your enemies… even if they’re not willing to learn from you.