“A Man Said to the Universe” by Stephen Crane
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
As most of you know, we’re expecting a little bundle of crazy, scary joy in February. (I’m very appreciative that baby Zorro decided to time his or her arrival in between the Super Bowl and the NBA playoffs. What a thoughtful baby!) As that day of colossal change rushes towards me, I find myself reflecting more and more on the world around me and what I will tell Zorro about it. My reflections started with the literature we’ve read in class. Perhaps that seems like a nerdy place to begin, or perhaps that seems like a fitting place. After all, what better place to begin your examination on what you’ll teach your child than what you already teach children? The most recent unit of study in our English IV AP class-Existentialism: The Search for Answers. In the unit, we read quite possibly my favorite piece of short fiction, “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway. If you haven’t read it, here’s a link.
And while that text moved me, the piece that stuck with me the longest from the unit was “Sisyphus’s Acceptance” by Stephen Dunn, which can be found here.
This poem isn’t a complex cornucopia of words, meant to whet the appetites of wordsmiths and literary nerds alike. If you’re familiar with the myth of Sisyphus, you should be just fine. And if you need a refresher, check this video out 🙂
The poem became meaningful to me because of personal context. In a few short months, I’ll have a child that in a few short years will be asking “why?” very often. And while that first wave of whys will probably only probably cover simple childhood wonders like, “Why is the sky blue?”, wrapped up within that curiosity is the angsty adolescent question: “Why should I?” which is really sugar-coating (although the coating isn’t very sweet) the real question we all ask: “Why does it matter?”
Which brings me back to Sisyphus. Depending on your viewpoint, none of this world matters, right? We go to school from the age of five through the age of 22 to sit in class, earn good grades, and repeat the process. Then from the ages of 22-65, we get up to sit at work and earn good wages, and repeat the process, as if the fruits of yesterday’s labor weren’t harvested. If we’re lucky, our lives go this smoothly, if not monotonously, but agents of chaos, such as illness, accidents, and company restructuring, agents that are out of our control, often meddle in our “best laid schemes.” All of the planning and hard work can be for nothing, and that’s not only uncomforting; if I think about it too long, it makes me very anxious.
When I zoom out to take a wide-angle, macro-look at our country, I can’t help but realize how much Sisyphus’s dilemma applies to our current political state. Depending on how you voted, you either feel pretty incredible about how our country has moved the boulder up the mountain, or you feel crushed by how far the boulder has tumbled back down towards you. One can feel delighted or defeated, or you can take solace or take despair, knowing than in four or eight years, you’ll feel the exact opposite as you do right now when the political pendulum swings back in the opposite direction.
One great consolation of having a baby on the way is that I can’t get too wrapped up in partisan self-pity because I’m faced with perhaps the greatest Sisyphusian dilemma of them all: having and raising a child. Why should we bring another human being into the world when he or she will certainly face pain, setbacks, and disappointment and ultimately, death? It is absolutely absurd. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with hopelessness, especially when the social and traditional media bombards us with misanthropic bleakness.
The reason to raise a child is simple: because I choose to have hope. It’s the same reason I haven’t given up on our political process, and it’s the same reason I get out of bed and walk into a classroom every day. Because I choose to push the boulder up the existential hill.
In honor of hope, I’m going to pair this entry with an obvious, but probably little-known choice: A barley-wine from Real Ale Brewing Company called Sisyphus. This beer, the color of sultry caramel with notes of toffee, plums, with a malty, dry finish. The nose, a seductive blend of pit fruit and… The brewers from Real Ale created the beer to honor and bemoan the laborious and monotonous process of brewing beer.
It doesn’t matter that the Universe doesn’t have “a sense of obligation” towards me or any of us. I can still carve a little niche in this world out for me, and when the time comes, we’ll teach Zorro how to carve one out for himself or herself. Thanks to Sisyphus, I’ll have an answer for Zorro when he or she asks, “Why”? Now, to work on the “How?”
Note: Special Thanks to Andres Lopez, Sasha Jaramillo, and my English IV AP students for a”muse”ing this blog entry out of me.