A fire that burns but does not burn us out

Remember that booth from the Peanuts cartoons where Lucy used to offer Charlie Brown psychiatric care for five cents? That’s roughly where Moses is halfway through the Book of Exodus, sitting in his wilderness booth, chin in hand, the leader of a newly formed nation of ex-slaves spending his days fielding endless disputes.

It does make you wonder what quarrels the Israelites raised in the wilderness. How do you make a class action lawsuit about manna? How do you have a meaningful dispute about sandals that never wear out?

But humans gotta human. And I confess that on most days in 2022, I would gladly take a number and stand in line for some Mosaic adjudication.

Here’s one of the disputable matters I would ask about. This is going to sound petty, but I am tracking what feels like an unprecedented number of absences and tardies across my undergraduate courses. It seems like just a few years back—or am I romanticizing 2019?—that all I had to do was take roll at the beginning of each class. That was enough to communicate that, whatever else happens in your other courses, your presence here in this class matters to the rest of us. These days, that message is not getting through. It used to be, a few years back, that when students were tardy more than twice, I could pull them aside and say, Hey, what can we do to get you here on time? I’ve tried that move this semester, and the students duck their heads and apologize like usual—but then they keep coming to class late. I’ve had to redesign pedagogy to a far less linear mode to accommodate the fact that a sizeable fraction of the class may well be gone on any given day.

And when the students do come to class, they stare forlornly into their laptop screens, shuffling among browsers. The other day, I passed a student who was just looking at his Gmail screen as if waiting for something, anything, to happen. I can’t remember a semester when I have so often asked students a question and had them frankly admit that they hadn’t heard what I said just a moment ago.

I try to remember that, over the past two years, these students have found themselves in a society as riven by disputes as the Israelites at the foot of Sinai. I try to be mindful that students are bemused by public health messaging, worn down by serial quarantines, and prone to doom scrolling.

Marc Chagall. Moses with the Burning Bush, 1966.

I understand from reading elsewhere in the book of Exodus that Moses has some experience with public health care crises. If I could buy time with Moses for five cents, here are some questions I’d ask: How do I reinstate late penalties after two years of being glad assignments arrived at all? Under what conditions should remote access be permitted for students without COVID? What would a Bronze Serpent Initiative look like in my classroom where Air Pods are ubiquitous?

But, really, those are the easy questions, right? The real conundrums pertain to how college teaching relates to contemporary political discourse: What does one say to students who clearly don’t trust academics? How does one speed up patient conceptual exploration to match the contemptuous one-liners issued by cable-news ideologues? What does “equal time” look like in a classroom, when public disputes seek only to own the other side?

And these conundrums reach far beyond the classroom. Lately, I’ve been conducting research among early-career professionals, looking ahead a few years from where my students are now. It doesn’t take an agglomerative cluster analysis to notice personal and vocational and civic distractedness and fatigue among these research subjects. One Los-Angeles-based millennial told me she’s not sure if her weariness comes from a chronic health condition, the extreme changeability of her guild at the moment, or the tottering of liberal democracy itself. Another young professional, a Chicago-based marketer, told me that her vocational path had felt like falling down several flights of stairs, getting up, walking with fragile dignity down the next flight or two, and then tumbling down a few more. I interviewed a team lead at the video-game giant Bungee who described his emotional experience as stacked overwhelm.

All these layers of questions have me thinking that what we need today is less Moses and more Jethro. You remember him, maybe, as the Bible’s gutsiest father-in-law, emerging early in the book of Exodus, rashly marrying off his daughter to a fugitive from the Pharaoh. And then again, halfway through the book, Jethro appears to advise Moses as the leader of a new nation of disputatious ex-slaves. And the old guy’s advice is blunt.

“What you are doing,” Jethro tells Moses, “is not good.” You saw a bush burning, sure, and I believe you. But, look, you yourself are about to burn out. It must have taken some nerve for him to say that: other people in Exodus would say much the same thing and get picked off with extreme prejudice. But Moses accepts the advice and builds out a more collective infrastructure of discernment across the tribes of Israel.

Jethro’s wisdom matters today, not just because he spots that Moses has a problem, but because he spots that Moses’ problem is about to become everybody else’s problem, too.

Jethro’s wisdom matters today, not just because he spots that Moses has a problem, but because he spots that Moses’ problem is about to become everybody else’s problem, too. “You will surely wear yourself out,” Jethro says, adding, “both you and these people with you.”

It’s a strangely recognizable thing, at least for this professor, that dutifulness can be so exhausting for the intended beneficiaries of that diligence. 

 So, yes, we need Jethro’s compassion for students who feel harassed and helpless like sheep with too many bad shepherds. But we should also show that compassion to our own dutiful selves. I started this post by saying I wished I could show up at a Lucy-like booth and ask Moses for some advice. But Jethro points to someone greater than Moses who comes with a fire that burns but does not burn us out.  

For further reading: On burn-out, see this piece by Jon Malesic. On pedagogical and mentoring issues stemming from the pandemic, see this curated list of posts. See also Courtney Dorroll’s series on self-care and the academy.


Craig Mattson teaches and researches communication at Trinity Christian College in a south suburb of Chicago. He’s the author of two books, Rethinking Communication in Social Business and Why Spiritual Capital Matters. To follow his research on early-career professionals and how they deal with overwhelm, subscribe to The ModeSwitch.substack.com. For other posts by Craig, click here.

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