On Taking Ourselves Too Seriously, And Other Tragic Mistakes
November 23, 1999
One of the great challenges of education is for teachers to cling to their enthusiasm for new literature and new ideas while facing the barrage of forces we call "the real world." Any teacher knows all too well what "the real world" entails: bathroom passes, detentions, and administrative edicts. In that real world, it may seem foolish to believe that teachers and literature can make a meaningful difference in the lives of young people. Teachers may throw the educational equivalent of life preservers into the dark and stormy seas of adolescence, but does anyone ever grab hold?
Teachers and writers alike must hold fast to truth and compassion as we help young people make their way in a turbulent world. Yet in doing so, we must avoid taking ourselves too seriously. It's a pitfall that waylays the best of our young people and the best of our intentions. Like the emperor who desperately wants new clothes, if we take ourselves too seriously, we risk losing all perspective. In literature and in life, I believe we can avoid the emperor's tragic mistake by cultivating what I'll call dimensionality.
It only took milliseconds for my computer to tell me that dimensionality is not really a word. But one of my college English professors contended that the invention of new words is among the pinnacles of creative achievement. In fact, this professor would no doubt be at least as impressed with my invented term as she would be with my published novels. Dimensionality, as I define it, deals with the multi-faceted nature of people, of events, of ideas, of life in general.
Dimensionality is the recognition that there are many sides to whatever we perceive, the recognition of the multiple and complex dimensions connected with others and with ourselves. Dimensionality gives birth to, but is not the equivalent of, perspective. It may be difficult to describe, but we know it when we come across it.
When Cyrus, a high school sophomore, bemoans the fact that he used to think he had the world all figured out until we started teaching him about other cultures and ways of thinking, that's dimensionality. And when Julie, a junior, breaks into a discussion of Moby Dick, wondering if anyone besides her is concerned about the poor whale, that's dimensionality, too. And it's what Josh, in Out of the Wilderness, struggles with as he tries to understand his half-brother Nathan, who teeters on the brink of sanity, and his father, who allows Nathan to put them all in danger.
Adolescents, almost by definition, tend to be rather one-dimensional, or self-absorbed. Now, a bit of self-absorption is a good thing. Self-esteem is certainly important, and self-actualization is an important stage of psychological development. But given too much of this single dimension, we become self-centered.
I would contend that much of what we term "coming of age," "identity crisis," and "search for self" is actually a matter of developing dimensionality. In ancient cultures, coming of age rituals pushed the young person beyond her one-dimensional self into the adult world of many dimensions.
But our culture lacks such rituals. In fact, many modern forces discourage dimensionality. Daily, the electronic media bombards us with flat, manipulated images in rapid-fire succession. We see countless dimensions but experience none. Soap operas and talk shows in particular celebrate the singular dimension of self. In that one dimension, the only pathos one will know is his own. Empathy is impossible.
In myth, legend, and theology, a lack of dimensionality is associated with the darkest, most tragic aspects of human existence. Consider Narcissus, Faust, and Lucifer. All suffer from tragic self-absorption, from a lack of dimensionality. And consider modern tragedies like this news story from Eugene, Oregon, dated Nov. 2, 1999. The headline reads School shooter described himself as 'evil.'
The details of the case, recently brought to trial, are horrific and all too familiar. A 17-year-old kills both parents, then embarks on a shooting rampage at his school, wounding 25 of his classmates and killing two. How can one account for such violence and rage? It's a question our nation finds itself asking over and over again. Here's what the young man wrote in his journal:
I sit here all alone. I am always alone... I try so hard... In the end, I hate myself for what I've becomeÉI hate every person on this Earth. I am so consumed with hate all the time could I ever love anyone?
I won't pretend to understand all of the causes of this young man's behavior. Attorneys have argued over his level of sanity. But we can observe the results of his thinking. Lacking dimensionality, the boy loses perspective. It is as if he exists alone in a mirrored room in which every action reflects back at him.
Though we see this young man's lack of dimensionality as a tragic flaw of our era, literature affirms that it is the tragic flaw of many eras. From Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth to characters like Joseph in A Distant Enemy and Nathan in Out of the Wilderness, we read of characters who must learn dimensionality or meet with their own tragic ends.
Certainly education should foster dimensionality. But I think we delude ourselves if we believe that teaching concepts like respect, tolerance, and multiculturalism does the whole job. The complete person recognizes not only the varied dimensions of others, but also the varied dimensions of self. She embraces the many facets of humanity and of life. For promoting dimensionality, not only education, but more specifically literature and laughter, are among our most valuable resources.
Literature is nothing if not dimensional. Readers relish the unfolding of multiple dimensions in character, and they celebrate with characters as they come into a sense of their own dimensionality.
Certainly readers don't necessarily need to relate to characters on the surface, connecting only with skin color, cultural heritage, or family situation. If only half-Eskimo boys could relate to Joseph in A Distant Enemy, or if only teenagers living in remote cabins could relate to Josh in Out of the Wilderness, my publishers would have quite a marketing problem on their hands. But these, like all stories, illustrate some of the infinite dimensions of life, and through them readers touch those threads of experience that link humankind.
And then there is laughter. In younger years, didn't the most hardened and violent of teens giggle over silly stories with the rest of their class? What happened? Somehow many adolescents have fallen from joy, and it's more than just a loss of feeling good. Laughter opens our world. When we laugh together, we share a common dimension that the embittered and the self-absorbed have set aside. Irony in particular sharpens our perspective and heightens dimensionality. It illuminates the twists and curves in the road of multiple dimensions that we call life. The reader who laughs, who appreciates irony, moves into a dimensional state of being.
How can we promote dimensionality? Perhaps it begins with realizing how prone we are toward being too serious. Examine the typical high school canon, bulging with classics. It's a serious body of work. Surely you've heard the moans of students, after plowing through Lord of the Flies, All Quiet on the Western Front, Red Badge of Courage, and The Great Gatsby, asking wearily, "Will we ever read anything happy?"
Classics are wonderful, but reading only literature of death, doom, and depression pushes us into a single dimension. This seems obvious, but just recently a well-respected teaching colleague told me that she considers "meaningful young adult literature" an oxymoron.
What this colleague doesn't realize is that young adult literature is tremendously dimensional. In the pages of a young adult novel, readers share laughter and tears, irony and resolution. Characters in both large and small moments of triumph come into their own dimensionality. With them, we begin to understand how taking ourselves too seriously is one of the most tragic of human errors, because it confines us to a single dimension.
In your classrooms, it will be your own sense of dimensionality, more than any great theories or insights you have happened upon, that will save your students. Rather than throwing rubber rings willy nilly into the dark seas of adolescence, why not embark together on an expedition in pursuit of the multi-faceted jewel of dimensionality? And on that journey, let literature and laughter lead the way.
Deb Vanasse, author of A Distant Enemy (Penguin/Puffin, 1997) and Out of the Wilderness (Clarion, 1999) is also a retired high school English teacher. She and her family live in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Reference Citation: Vanasse, Deb. (2000) "On Taking Ourselves Too Seriously and Other Tragic Mistakes." The ALAN Review , Volume 27, Number 2, 27-28.