Finding Our Portals to Transcendence
by Phil Olson
There is an experiential continuum between being awestruck by the majesty and scale of the natural world and being utterly engrossed by a detailed, complex task. Macro versus micro, breadth versus depth.
My students and I are suffering from a lack of both.
When my Advanced Placement Literature classes recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus, they encountered dense prose and the need for a good thesaurus. At first, they didn't like it. The plot is a slow burn, and all those words make it a slog, so we get through the early pages by looking for word combinations that might make excellent band names:
Some students take offense when I point out that young Victor Frankenstein is a STEM student who is obsessed with the potential power of numbers and formulas and is determined to make them answer humanity’s biggest questions:
As he pursues science, Victor becomes a narcissistic jerk who makes an eight-foot-tall mistake, and students are eager to criticize him by arguing that no one could be so short sighted as to actually assemble and animate such a powerful creature without heeding its obvious dangers. Then we talk about nuclear arsenals, the petroleum industry, Facebook and Twitter….
Shelley’s title character is not a good romantic, so he serves as the perfect foil for Shelley’s celebration of Romanticism, the early 19th Century artistic movement that championed a love and respect for nature, emphasized emotions over intelligence, and foregrounded the rights and potentials of all human beings, even those without rank or wealth. Radical stuff. Victor is a failed romantic because he violates nature, lacks empathy, and watches passively as lives are destroyed.
Basically, we experience the sublime when we contemplate features of nature that are vast, mysterious, enchanting, and even dangerous. When we encounter a violent storm, a glacial mountain, or a roiling ocean, we feel small, vulnerable, and even afraid. And this is good. It’s humbling and allows us to take a load off: we are not the center of the universe. It also helps us put our daily experiences, especially nagging frustrations, into the proper context where they matter a heckuva lot less. We need the sense of proportion afforded by the sublime.
Last summer I had a sublime experience while hiking, alone, in California’s Redwood National Forest. It is morning, not yet full light. Moisture hangs suspended between the mammoth trees and the carpet of ferns. Silence. I am tiny; somehow both exhilarated and at peace; and I can’t help but recall a conversation with a local who told about recent sightings of a mountain lion.
My spine tingles in the same way when I share this story with my students, and then I ask them about their recent, sublime experiences. Some share stories, but many don’t, and some discover that the sublime erodes with time. We all agree we want more sublime experiences, so we spend a few minutes planning class trips we’ll never take.
And back to the continuum. When teaching Frankenstein, I place the sublime at one cosmic pole. On the other, I situate another concept that emerges when reading the novel with my students: the idea of “deep work,” a concept explored a few years ago by Cal Newport, a professor, author, and podcaster. (Check out his book, Deep Work, and/or listen to this revealing podcast interview with Newport for a quick, thoughtful introduction to the topic.)
The starting point of Newport’s argument is that, in our distracted world, we have an increasingly difficult time engaging in meaningful, complex, absorbing work. We have a hard time paying close attention. If you want to test your ability to focus, see if you can read the first ten pages of Frankenstein and, as you do, immerse/lose yourself in the setting and the plight of the characters. It’s not easy. Reading complex literature is deep work, and so is writing essays (especially this one!).
Everything educators do is deep work: reading and offering feedback on papers, planning lessons, creating projects, facilitating discussions, composing consequential emails, listening to students and colleagues, and on and on. And, of course, studenting is deep work, too. My students spend 35 hours per week in school, and each day is organized into eight periods, in which they take six classes, many of which assign homework. Calculus, physics, economics, Spanish, orchestra, art, and English all require deep work.
The problem for students and for me, is that we all have to juggle competing demands while also attempting to fend off distractions. The result is that I am always incredibly busy and seldom incredibly productive, and my students report the same. It feels impossible, but we must all carve out more time for deep work.
Here, at the end, I had intended to list some actionable ways to approach the sublime. How to engage in deep work. But my draft list is rather obvious (i.e. When experiencing sublime experiences, do not take selfies, and Close Outlook if you want to accomplish anything, ever). Instead, I return to Frankenstein and close with metaphors:
There are portals to transcendence at both ends of the continuum. When we channel our minds into the depths of experience, we flow with passion and power; and when we escape ourselves to tune in to the epic drama of existence, we’re left humbled, breathless.
We are readers. Readers of novels, readers of people, and readers of ideas—all intricate and not-entirely insignificant elements of the sublime world.
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