On Teaching and the Insomnia Plague

Despite the fact that I had a deep respect for my own teachers as people, I recall as a high school student thinking of the teaching profession as a pretty sorry excuse for a career. Sure, somebody had to do it, but I definitely thought it beneath me to spend years in school preparing myself for real work, only to end up right back where I started, preparing others to do what I would only ever contemplate from afar. They do say God has a sense of humor.


St. Gregory the Great, Patron of Teachers

I always viewed education as a job-readiness program; you went to school in order to become employable. In short, my view of education was purely utilitarian, a question only of means, not of ends. True, I did arrive to college in the United States with all the idealism and embarrassing overconfidence of youth—having convinced myself that my mission in life was to return to my native Colombia, become a politician, transform the economic and political systems of the country by a glorious imposition of my will, and usher in an era of peace, happiness, and prosperity—but still, I picked my majors purely as ways for getting the skills that would enable me to do this. From this point of view, teachers were helpful sidekicks, useful stepping stones, but surely not something a Great Man in waiting such as myself would ever want to be. (Did I say “over-confidence”? I think I meant “arrogance.”)

So there I was, your average 19-year old secular messiah, happily moving towards my inevitable destiny, when I stepped into Professor Walter McDougall’s final lecture of the semester for a survey class called “Europe in the Wider World.” The lecture was, ostensibly, McDougall’s summary of the accomplishments and failures of Western Civilization, but in truth it turned out to be a condensed treatise on the value of the human person that hit me like a sucker punch and left me literally, physically groggy as I walked out of the auditorium. In 80 minutes McDougall had ripped apart my plans and undone my view that people could only be helped by transforming the systems in which they lived, and that I should therefore concern myself only with the “big picture,” leaving the small stuff, such as personally serving another person, to others with less vision. Suddenly I had the answer to a curious fact I had always wondered about: why didn’t Americans seem happier than Colombians, even though they did not face the widespread poverty and violence we did? Even though their systems seemed to work so well? “If we had all this stuff,” I used to think when I would come to visit during vacations, “we’d be happy.” Now it dawned on my that, no, we probably wouldn’t. A system is something external; it cannot help someone who is sick or empty on the inside.

Once that thought entered my head, my previous plans seemed pointless. Systems were at best only icing on the cake. If you wanted to help people, the real work had to be done one on one—you had to find opportunities for connecting mind to mind and heart to heart.

Over the next few years, then, God led me towards transforming my understanding of education and the teaching profession. Far from an antechamber where people merely prepared for the real show—the imperative of doing and producing—it suddenly began to seem much closer to the main event.

Allow me to illustrate by turning to one of my more famous compatriots. In the early chapters of One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez describes how an “insomnia plague” strikes the fictional town of Macondo. A Native American woman who had come to Macondo precisely to flee the scourge of this sickness explains its horror to the town’s incredulous inhabitants. “When the sick person became used to his state of vigil,” the book tells us, “the recollection of his childhood began to be erased from his memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of his own being until he sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.”

When I first read the book as a high school student, I took the whole episode as one more of García Márquez’s flights of fancy, just one among the many that make part of this seminal work of magical realism. García Márquez, however, has often denied that he writes magical realism at all. Instead, he says, he writes about the realities he sees, and if these happen to be magical at times, he can hardly be blamed for that. Knowing that he writes about the real world then, Macondo’s insomnia plague soon reveals itself as a darkly prophetic vision of our times. When news of the disease first reach the town’s inhabitants, no one sees a reason to be alarmed. “If we don’t ever sleep again, so much the better,” one of the main characters states, “That way we can get more out of life.” Even after hearing about the consequent loss of memory, most characters laugh at the warnings. But why exactly does insomnia lead to amnesia in Macondo? García Márquez gives no straight answers, but he does provide some clues. The author mentions that despite their lack of fatigue, some inhabitants nevertheless desperately want to sleep simply “because of the nostalgia for dreams.” Macondo, of course, is a microcosm for the world, and García Márquez’s vision reveals a society trying to “get more out of life” by being always “doing,” always “on the go.” In this distorted understanding of carpe diem, however, people lose the capacity to dream, and soon the immediate present becomes all that exists. It is not long before characters start using tarot cards to read the past as well as the future.

As the foundations of their world erode, Macondoans begin posting signs next to every imaginable item in order to remember its name and its use. They post bigger ones to remind themselves of their place in the universe (“Macondo”), as well as who put them there (“God exists”). This approach works for a while, but in a telling sentence the narrator explains that “the system demanded so much vigilance and moral strength that many succumbed to the spell of an imaginary reality, one invented by themselves.” It is not hard to see how all this relates to a world in which the word “reality” most often brings to mind a television show in which cameras follow a group of impossibly beautiful people trying to outwit each other within some absurd scenario. At last the novel concludes with a haunting image: “[I]t was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men . . . because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

I cannot say how our own history will unfold in relation to Macondo’s fate, but I’ve come to see teachers as those who hold the line against the amnesia plague. The vocation to teach is not a call to merely, or even primarily, prepare others to take their places in the economy; it is the privilege and honor of helping to fill and shape human souls. Education, and especially an education that aspires to draw us closer to God through service of others, is an essentially humanizing enterprise. It is a calling that those of us who have taken it up probably only live up to on our very best days, but I, for one, have come to find the struggle thrilling.