“Vanity of vanities!” Says the Teacher, “vanity of vanities all is vanity!” I feel like I have a lot in common with the “Teacher” of Ecclesiastes. I also am a teacher who ends most of his days at work with a statement along the lines of Ecclesiastes 1:2. It wasn’t always this way. Back when I was a starry-eyed first year teacher, I woke up in the morning ready to “make a difference” in the lives of the poor black and hispanic kids of the inner-city school in which I began teaching. That quickly went out the window after I had to deal with classroom management (read-crowd control) and a whole mess of insecurities and limitations of mine that bubbled up to the surface and overflowed into halls of the school. The fun part was having my supervisors and new coworkers watching me try to contain that messy explosion of inexperience, fear, and my short-fused temper. That glamorous vision of effortlessly having my students eat out of the palm of my hand withered away as I faced the reality that I had committed myself to for at least one full school year. I longed for the day when I would have it “all figured out.” But for then, I had to deal with the ugliness and confusion of my failure, inner turmoil, and the little bundles of joy (terrors) whose care was entrusted to me.
Why is it that we often expect so much from our work, our relationships, and all endeavors that we engage in-all to find out that reality is not as glitzy and fabulous as the images that manifest in our minds? We build up our hopes of making a difference in the world, of turning it into a better place. Yet if we chose to be honest with ourselves and break out of our reactionary state of denial, we make ourselves vulnerable to being smacked in the face with the fact that we are only so powerful and actually have a lot more flaws and limitations than we would like. I can barely get my own shit together. So much for making a difference in the lives of others…
This sense of greatness that pervades all that we do may be quashed by the reality of our own weaknesses and shortcomings, but could there be something that allows us to accept both the relentless nature of our desires as well as the fact that we are limited creatures? As Postmodern culture is hitting its peak, we have gotten used to having its dogmas shoved down our throats at a faster pace than Jehovah’s Witnesses can go door to door handing out copies of the Watchtower. We have grown accustom to sermons that preach about the coming of an ideal world founded upon success, self-acceptance, diversity, and tolerance. And yet we still live in a world where people can’t accept the givenness of their bodies, refuse to tolerate convictions other than their own, and where the lives of young black men, homeless people, unborn babies, and elderly family members are tossed aside with the same regard as recyclable materials and renewable energy sources. Again, if we choose to face the reality of our situation, we are unpleasantly surprised by the fact that the world does not correspond to our ideal, no matter how much we try to make it do so.
Some may seek to police the acceptance of utopian ideals through enforcement of the values of “political correctness.” Some may turn to nihilism, recognizing that our attempts to become perfect and to impose meaning onto reality are futile. In my experience, I find that true progress is made within the dynamic between my desire and reality when I am willing to let said dynamic provoke a question in me. Why do I want these things; why do I want to live this way? What (or Who) can satisfy this desire? I agree with the nihilist’s assertion that we are powerless and that we can never impose our desire for meaning onto reality. I also agree with the politically correct-nazi to the extent to which he refuses to give up on his desire for an ideal world. But at a certain point these positions must accept the entirety of the factors that make up reality, and by allowing a question to penetrate our reality, we open up a space for an authentic answer to transcend our circumstances. Postmodernity must begin to crack to make room for something truly “new” to break through.
In order for this questioning mind-set to emerge, something must challenge the paradigm of relating with reality in a way that instinctively resorts to utopian or nihilistic ideologies. The challenge to this paradigm is an encounter with a person, the witness of a living example who follows a new, transcendent paradigm. Someone must ask us “what are you looking for?” (John 1:38). This question both breaks through the presumptions of hardened ideologies and negates a nihilism that presupposes that there is nothing worth looking for.
To swim against the status quo requires bravery and courage. It is no easy feat to assert that there is a true meaning in life. But someone must be willing to seek outside of oneself, outside of one’s idealistic vision, into a mysterious, unknown world filled with finite “vanities” that crumble with our touch. It requires someone who is willing to return to their childhood, to face the world with a youthful sense of wonder and awe, seeking not to rationalize or stuff away this original desire. It takes someone like the young Therese of Lisieux who as a child wanted her parents to buy her all of the toys that she saw, and as an adult let her demand for more become an unashamed expectation for everything from life which she refused to compromise. It takes someone like Monsignor Luigi Giussani who would approach young couples who were kissing outside at night, asking them “what does what you’re doing right now have to do with the stars?” We want the stars! We want everything! And yet we cannot reach this by our own effort. The brave person, the realistic person, can take into account both of these facts of our existence, and let the true question, as paradoxical as it may be, emerge.
Entering into my third year as a teacher, the paradox of our humanity has become all but too familiar to me. At a certain point, I did reach my “dream” of students eating out of the palm of my hand. And when that day came, I realized how inadequate my little utopia was. I realized that even though I had achieved my goal, I still wasn’t satisfied. I still wanted more. Not only this, but I hadn’t actually made a “real” difference in my students’ lives. Sure they liked me, sure they looked up to me. And yet they still suffered from poverty and violence, prejudice and hatred, laziness and apathy. Any difference I made in their lives was miniscule in comparison to the ways in which they continue to experience dissatisfaction. And eventually, the days of students eating out of the palm of my hand passed, and came back, and passed again. So much for “having it all figured out.”
My idealistic goal was not so realistic, not only because I couldn’t achieve it permanently, but also because my desire is for something so much greater than success, power, or altruism. In the same way, my students’ desire for happiness is so much greater than anything I could ever give them. Thus I resort to the words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: “vanity of vanities!” All of our constructs of happiness pass. Our capacity to give ourselves happiness passes even faster. The greatest gift I can give my students is not my being a perfect teacher, but rather a question. The greatest difference I can make in their lives is to invite them to chip away at the walls built for them by postmodernity. By asking them the questions: what are you looking for? What can give you complete happiness?, I make space for something true to transcend their circumstances-for that which can make a real “difference” in their lives. My goal now is to be a witness, not to perfection, but to the paradox that I have found that transcends the circumstances in my own life.