Learning to Unlearn, Daring to Rip Out

knitting closeupI am a mediocre knitter, but yarn is comforting in the cold months of winter. I learned how to knit from my mother, who learned from her mother. Many, many years later someone pointed out to me that I was “doing it wrong.”

I tried many times to change my technique, but always grew frustrated and went back to my Swedish-Grammy-Doing-It-Wrong style.

Then, unexpectedly, I gave it another shot last week and—signs and wonders!—I could suddenly master the “correct” way of holding the yarn, positioning and moving the needles, and keeping the tension consistent.

I’ve been amazed to find how EASY it has been to adapt to this new method, and how fast the knitting goes now. So why did it take me something like 35 years to make this change?

Honestly, I don’t know. What I DO know is that it is wicked hard to UNLEARN something that has become habitual, whether that’s a knitting style, or your sense of self, or your understanding of God. And it seems that this process of change goes through three different stages.

First, you have the received wisdom that tells you who you are, who God is, and how to hold knitting needles and yarn. Second, you realize that you’ve been doing it wrong, and what the right way looks like. For a time, the right way lives in your mind, but the wrong way lives in your gut, your heart, and your muscle memory. You know how you WANT to be different, but you can’t actually do it. This is the time of frustration, and sometimes it seems to go on forever.

Then suddenly (or so it seems) you transition to the third stage—the doing it differently, the changing—moving comfortably into a new understanding and a new set of habits.

It’s this process of entering the third stage that most bewilders me. Why does it seem so difficult, so resistant to brute willpower and reason?

Perhaps for the same reason that knitting frustrates me: I HATE it when I catch a mistake, and the only way to correct it is to rip out all the rows until I get back to where the mistake was and can reknit it. This is murder for me! I’m impatient and not great in the perseverance department. I’ve invested so much time in this knitting, and hate to undo it.

But the undoing is necessary. So is the unlearning of ways of thinking, and long-held misunderstandings, if we are to move on to healthier and truer ways of thinking.

As I’ve been unlearning my old knitting habits, I’ve found myself thinking about other things my mother taught me that were wrong. She taught me that a woman’s place (no matter how smart she is) is in supporting the work of men. She taught me to stifle emotions or rename them. (When my older brother pounded me in the arm so hard it raised bruises, I was taught that it was just “love taps.”)

She taught me this innocently, unknowingly, inevitably. You see, this was what she had been taught herself. It was the only reality she knew, the only reality she could teach me. Just like she taught me how to knit the wrong way.

If she were still alive I’d teach her how to do it right. All of it—the knitting, the sense of self, the gender issues. And I’d assure her that all the ripping out is worth it.

I’d promise her a handmade latte as her reward for persevering. But, since she’s not here, I’ll just have to have one myself.


Kris Haig — artisan, teacher, spiritual director

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