24 June 2009: Happiness, success found in the doing

Happiness, success are found in the doing

Last week I wrote in the struggle for success, failure is often the rule while success is a one-time event, excluding notables such as perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen, the Colorado Rockies, who are poising to shatter tradition, and Sisyphus.

In the ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to toil eternally by pushing a monstrous boulder up a mountainside to near the top, at which point, every time, it wobbles and teeters then rumbles back down to the plain, where once again Sisyphus begins the task anew.

In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus tries to imagine what Sisyphus is thinking and feeling as he descends, all too aware of the failure of every previous effort and accepting the futility of every future attempt, for he can never succeed.

Both the original myth and Camus’ interpretation of it give listeners and readers much to ponder, from the idea of the nobility of pursuing life in whatever terms it presents to the absurdity of the pursuit.

The irony is, as Camus surmises, Sisyphus finds happiness in his toil: That which has been to be his eternal burden, the rock, becomes his joy.

From that perspective, the maxim of Matthieu Ricard, the Buddhist monk I referenced a few weeks ago, that happiness is a skill takes on deeper meaning.

For post-modern humanity, in this world of instant twittering, we have lost the ability to be patient—to be patient of the toil, of the process, of the doing, and of finding the joy in all that, even in the absurd futility that oftentimes accompanies the routine.

Ian Neligh wrote a few weeks back about the joy he finds in panning for gold. The gold he discovered is the knowledge it is the act, not the Eureka moment of literal discovery.

We no longer have the patience in toiling to get it right. We want immediate success and approval and our education system has succumbed to that thinking.

Recall the scene in A River Runs through It in which Norman Maclean, as a young man in his teens, is being home-schooled by his father. The lesson is about writing effectively but concisely. Each time Norman presents his latest version, his father strikes out a few words or passages and tells him, “Again, only this time, shorter.” On a beautiful summer day with the fishing pole waiting, that was a most trying experience for young Norman. .

In a recent Newsweek online edition, the article “The Top of the Class: The complete list of the 1,500 top U.S. high schools,” Jay Mathews, a writer on education issues for the Washington Post, presents his own standard by which to judge the success of high schools.

His Challenge Index is determined by “the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and/or Cambridge tests taken by all students at a school divided by the number of graduating seniors.”

The audacity and even aburdity of creating such a composite list is what immediately puzzles me: How does one define excellence? What are the criteria? Is excellence determined ultimately by test-constructed assessments?

I am supposing by Mathew’s index students who opt not to deconstruct Chaucer in an AP/IB testing format in favor of learning the intricacies of the internal combustion engine should be considered blathering idiots.

In his New York Times piece “The case for working with your hands,” Matthew B. Crawford writes, “A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive.”

OK, they are eccentrics and not blathering idiots, but the trend, the pigeon-holing begins innocuously at the earliest levels even in the public schools.

“There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children,” Crawford continues. “It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions.”

Define prestigious as uber-expensive and off limits to anyone without resources and pedigree.

Nearly three decades in public education and nearly two on the school board have given me ample opportunity to observe “anxious parents” in action and the game-playing inculcated into their children’s minds.

The telling point is Mathew’s scale is not about outcome—not how well I did—but of participation: I played the game, so, therefore, I am a success, to paraphrase Descartes.

But it is in the toil—and we need to understand that toil does not correlate to game-playing—we find happiness and, therefore, success, for finding personal happiness is as good as any, if not the only true measure of success.

Camus concludes his essay with “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

To be continued.

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