Journeying under the Sun and through the Smoke with Ecclesiastes while Teaching and Learning in a Public High School

Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
    There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work[...]?  
--The Message translation of the first verses of Ecclesiastes 
Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
     at which they toil under the sun?
--The NIV translation of the first verses of Ecclesiastes

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
--Ecclesiastes 11:1 (NIV) 

I had a much different topic ready for today, but I read Dave Stuart’s timely and encouraging post on “The Teacher’s Journey.” That got me thinking about the cycles of disorientation and reorientation that are so much a part of my life and work as a teacher. In terms of struggling through such cycles, I’d say that one of most formative books for my own journey so far is Ecclesiastes. It’s an ancient wisdom book that deals with inner and outer cycles of learning, teaching, and working through life’s messy experiences. Ecclesiastes is a bit like C.S. Lewis’ characterization of Aslan: The book grows bigger as the messy cycles of life and teaching frequently grow bigger and more wearisome.

If my work were all about teaching and learning in the classroom with my students, I think I’d have a much different blog with all sorts of upbeat, enthusiastic posts. But it’s messier than that. Routinely there are swirling pressures coming from grants, politics, unfunded mandate via legislation, trendy pseudo-science and shallow philosophies, well-meaning but misguided philanthropists, a narcissistic culture, and so many other disruptive elements blowing through and somewhat blowing up my daily work.

The Hebrew word for that sort of shifting experience is hebel, which gets various renderings in translations of Ecclesiastes, ranging from vanity to meaningless to smoke. I think all the renderings apply at some point of my experience.

Often, the more I learn and teach, the more frustrated I become, and I hear the voice of Qohelet, the speaker in Ecclesiastes, whisper,” For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18, ESV). Like the word hebel, the word Qohelet gets various renderings, including teacher, preacher, quester, and/or worship leader.

Often, I hear various recommendations for how to think about the work of teaching and learning for engagement, ranging from how it should mostly be serious and productive to how it should be fun and pleasurable. Qohelet addresses these recommendations too. They are basically hebel.

But a few chapters in, Qohelet starts to reflect that sometimes we get to feel enjoyment with our work and with the basic pleasures in life, and he identifies those moments of enjoyment as gifts from God for which he can be thankful. Whatever your philosophy or worldview, that sense of the unpredictable grace of gratitude visiting you for the small things in life might resonate with your experience.

Contrary to some popular psychological views, the quest for joy and meaning is often messy: It doesn’t progress in a linear fashion but more of a circular manner. And through the erratic rhythms of life, we often need both to lament and rejoice through as we face our challenging experiences (a response pattern that ancient wisdom literature recognizes well).

There’s a strange comfort in knowing that a writer from approximately 3,000 years ago knows what it’s like to struggle with meaning throughout one’s life in the 21st century, a connection reminiscent of a line from William Gibson’s classic play :

"Words, why you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know - and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with even in the grave."--Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker

 Whatever your wisdom book may be, you can benefit from chewing on what you read. Philosopher Francis Bacon’s insight applies well to old wisdom books. The wisdom books of the past are food for thought that can help us navigate the hebel of teaching and learning:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." --from Bacon's Essays 

So much conspires to distract our tastes and our view into the distance past in the search for wisdom. We might join T.S. Eliot from about a century ago in considering the flood of info-bits and sound bites of our time:

"Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust."--from "The Rock" 

Eliot’s poetry and his life journey coincide with Qohelet’s well. Our vapid experiences of hebel can leave us empty like the voices in Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

By faith, we can grow to enjoy just investing in life, learning, and labor to benefit others, but the returns often take time to see, if we get to see them at all. Late in Ecclesiastes, there’s an encouraging directive along those lines: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” Ecclesiastes 11:1 (ESV).

If not for Ecclesiastes, I probably wouldn’t appreciate the insights found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In the novel’s dystopian society, thought-provoking books are burned and a shallow lifestyle of busyness and entertainment consumption is held in esteem. A life of struggling with hebel in teaching and learning while trying to feed on wisdom books can help one appreciate this snippet of dialogue from Bradbury:

"What have you to offer?"

"Nothing. I thought I had part of the Book of Ecclesiastes and maybe a little of Revelation, but I haven't even that now."

"The Book of Ecclesiastes would be fine. Where was it?" 
"Here," Montag touched his head.
"Ah," Granger smiled and nodded.
"What's wrong? Isn't that all right?" said Montag.
"Better than all right; perfect!" Granger turned to the Reverend.

"Do we have a Book of Ecclesiastes?"
"One. A man named Harris of Youngstown."

To some extent, we become what we have our minds feast upon. I think Bradbury was tapping into that aspect of truth in his novel.

I sympathize with my colleague who lacks enthusiasm for teaching Fahrenheit 451 to young high school students. It would probably be better placed as required reading for would-be teachers.

Our sense of the meaning of life often seems elusive, but we need to keep chewing on wisdom for the sake of remembering, reorienting, and reintegrating our lives with bigger picture meaningfulness. With the smoke still wafting all over the place from the dumpster-fire experiences of our current school year, we need wisdom to guide our lives more than ever.

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