Debugging the Grace of Great Things with Kafka and Other Great Writers (“Teaching with Great Writers in Mind” Continued)

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that, in his bed, he had been changed into a monstrous vermin.”

–The first sentence of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

“Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure [….] I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.”

–from Charles Darwin’s Autobiography 

“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?”

–G.K. Chesterton

For me, Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis reads like an existential parable about how people can lose their humanity by mindlessly going through daily life and relationships. I don’t want that to happen to any of us in real life. It’s one of those stories that I use with the students and simultaneously use to warn myself away from just going with the flow of public school teaching. (Waking up to find that you’ve been transformed into a dung beetle might be a fitting metaphor for the way many teachers feel these days.)

On a related note, I was rereading Daniel Liston’s “Love and Despair in Teaching.” Basically, he explores three different ways teachers come to burnout: being overwhelmed with apathy, neglecting a personal life, or being distracted and demoralized by unhelpful theories. Ouch! Each of the vignettes from Liston reads like part of my own educator’s biography over the last 27 years. The metamorphosis of the three teachers (one fictional and two actual) holds some parallels to the dehumanization that Gregor Samsa experiences. 

Along these lines, I couldn’t help but think of the excerpt from Charles Darwin above. Sadly, there was something of a negative metamorphosis in his own life that seems to connect to Gregor Samsa and to the teachers in Liston’s reflections. Darwin lost appreciation for all forms of art. Something about the routine abstraction of all life to a series of mechanical laws left Darwin disconnected from human life, beauty, and love. 

Liston also offered the counter-measure for dealing with despair in teaching: Love. With reference to Parker Palmer and other helpful sources, Liston shares that teachers’ flourishing against such burnout comes from connecting to a greater love. For Palmer, that greater love is the grace of great things. That got me thinking about G.K. Chesterton’s focus on the grace of little things from a great God in the quote above–a much needed balance to big thinking that also invites a reading of E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. In the face of perennial challenges to teaching and the strangest holiday season ever, I find such thoughts helpful for living beyond a bug’s life.

For an additional read on how good Shakespeare can be for us throughout our lives, from school age onward, I highly recommend Scott Newstock’s How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education. I especially enjoy how he takes Sir Ken Robinson to task for his cutesy (cheeky?) dismissal of the power of the actual renaissance education that William Shakespeare received. So much for us to consider with gratitude for the long-term flourishing of our students, our society, and ourselves.

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