Cynical Teachers Anonymous: A Pilgrim’s Regress

“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” –Oscar Wilde.

“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” –Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes, 1:18 (ESV).

For some of us, maybe the deeper issue behind teacher depression, anxiety, and burnout has to do with drifting into cynicism as a worldview and lifestyle. In trying to deal with dread and anxiety about the upcoming school week, I find myself increasingly disappointed by self-care and support strategies that I’m encountering these days from well-meaning folks.

Lately, I have accessed online educational support resources for mental health encouragement and self-care from sources as near as Boulder, Colorado and as far away as Scotland. The source from Boulder was recommended and provided by one of our state universities. Sunday afternoon seems when I most feel the need for some sort of encouragement about the week ahead. Their advice and strategies seem all too familiar and basically impotent.

However, here on Sunday afternoon, dread about Monday morning seems to abate a bit as I own up to my own cynicism about teaching, education, school, and other related factors. (I do really enjoy the rewarding challenges of working with students and helping them see the richness of my English literature, composition, and rhetoric course, but so much other nonsense gets in the way of the “grace of great things” in my subject area and the excellence that can be found in attending thoughtfully to daily study and discussion.)

Some part of me wants to justify myself by saying, “Well, at least I’m not a nihilist.” But that’s disingenuous. Doubting the value of everything is just a small step away from believing that everything is meaningless. A thoughtful colleague several states away has developed a continuum for beliefs and motivations displayed on a chart that spans from belief to unbelief. The continuum runs left to right, with criteria under each gradation for self reflection about how well one’s motivational beliefs are functioning–or not. The scheme can apply to students or to teachers. Almost a year back, I suggested that we pencil in something like despair to the right of unbelief. That’s where I was last year. This year, I think I need to add in cynical and nihilistic on that right side.

There’s definitely a dark and difficult side to learning, aging, and experience. One can get to the ancient teacher-writer Qoheleth’s state of being overwhelmed by repetitious, vain, and vapid patterns that are all too predictable as “vapor” or “vanity of vanity,” depending on the translation.

Today, once I got honest about my own functional cynicism, I started to feel a strange, new form of encouragement. It reminds me of the first step of alcoholics anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Those terms “powerless” and “unmanageable” seem to go with the “too familiar” and “impotent” qualities of the self-care sources I mention above. So, switch in “cynicism” for “alcohol” in step one, keep the rest, and I think it works as a growth and coping scheme. All I need now, is a recovery group to meet with.

Older writers seemed to understand this struggle for meaning and value in a collaborative or communal way that our highly individualized culture doesn’t. How sweet it would be to meet with others in some local pub to read books like C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress while discussing our struggles with valuing life and work while fending off cynicism. I mention Lewis’ book not because it is a masterpiece but due to Lewis’ fascinating symbolic reflections about the various influences on his beliefs over time, many of them cynical or nihilistic. He also reflects on the better competing influences that helped him embrace hope and meaning beyond the flux of surface life and unhealthy aspects of society. I think this awkward literary work can be catalytic for one’s own reflections and growth beyond cynicism.

I’m finding works from Lewis such as Pilgrim’s Regress and his Ransom Trilogy (alternatively called the Space Trilogy) especially helpful in conjunction with the crew at the Wade Center Podcast center coming from Wheaton College. For me, there’s something helpful about listening in to discussions about works by the likes of Lewis and Tolkien because those authors seemed to understand the temptations to cynicism and nihilism that we face in our time, especially as we grow older.

Discussion groups like Lewis and Tolkien’s The Inklings and recovery groups like A.A. have the right idea and may help us correct some of the shortcomings of our self-care solutions for mental health. Jamil Zaki reflects on our need for “other-care” to help us have a healthier mindset, especially during the pandemic, as he explains in “‘Self-Care’ Isn’t the Fix for Late-Pandemic Malaise: What we need is to take care of others.” Before tackling Lewis and other larger works, that might be a good article to discuss for our next meeting of Cynics Anonymous.

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