One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
This month marks year nineteen in my career as a public servant. Although I would never have admitted it at the time, I brought a set of hopes and expectations of what service entails. I wasn’t naïve enough to think that I could save the world, but fairly close to it. A few years ago I transitioned to a role as an educator, and found a new venue for misplaced optimism.
As Americans, we are preoccupied with heroic characters. The objects of our adoration struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds, grasping victory in the final moments. The key here, of course, is that the hero is one who succeeds. Those who exert a similar effort, but miss the final mark are losers. It doesn’t matter why success eludes these individuals, for if they had the substance of the hero they would surely have prevailed. I don’t intend to criticize those who succeed in life; success is a central component of our ability to persist. There is also such a things earned failure: if one doesn’t make any effort towards a goal, it shouldn’t be a surprise when things don’t go as hoped. Byung-Chul Han articulates this concept much better than I am able, and his work Burnout Society merits reading.
If one accepts the above definition of a hero as true, then the definition of success is of paramount importance. It is also vital to consider who is writing these definitions. American public education is often maligned and praised by the same people, depending on the question at hand. I respect parents’ desire for a high academic standard for their children; I have the same expectation for my own boys. When students’ academic performance cannot meet the standard, however, problems frequently arise. There is a baseline assumption that the fault must lie with the curriculum. Since the curriculum won’t respond to criticism, it the blame is often shifted to a teacher.
When considering my nascent second career, the myth of Sisyphus came to mind. Sisyphus’ story is somewhat complex, and it’s not readily apparent whether he can be considered a hero, anti-hero or a mix of both. What is clear, however, is that Sisyphus’ eternal punishment is quintessentially pointless. Enter Albert Camus: existentialist author and philosopher. Camus considers the absurd as a point of departure, rather than terminal destination. This seems to fit within the schema of public education, for one is primed with studies on pedagogy, prescriptive treatises, and best practices. Afterwards, teachers have the dubious distinction of being turned loose in an environment when their ability to act on this information is severely limited. At a glance, Camus’ rendition of Sisyphus’ pans out in a bleak landscape, devoid of hope. There is yet a bit of poetic beauty within Camus’ austere description, however. His phrasing reminds me of a koan:
A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! — Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
Sisyphus’ rolling stone also has parallels for me in the Soto Zen practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting”. Staring at a wall while remaining still is, from a certain perspective, an epitome of the absurd. At times, explanation does little to help the situation. I have become accustomed to bemused expressions, questions from acquaintances: “So… you do this voluntarily?” Just as with our dear Sisyphus, the essence of shikantaza cannot be adequately expressed indirectly. One must sit to experience sitting; push a boulder to experience rolling. This is perhaps the thread that binds my ill-defined narrative. In doing, one can find meaning beyond words. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the subject, such as they are. All the same, it’s Sunday night and I have a boulder waiting on me tomorrow morning.