Futility is not new topic in literature--I just didn’t expect to find it in YA lit--and especially in a work that is sweeping the scene like The Hunger Games series.
There’s lots to love about these books--as a jawdropping number of my 10th grade students, even ones who claim to never have enjoyed reading a book before--have found. Something for everyone, from a fast-paced plot with a little romance and a lot of danger to really deep themes like identity, freedom, power, and the places where those issues intersect: If a creature like the mockingjay, created by power for its own nefarious ends, can escape that power and create its own beauty, then there is hope for all of us, even when we find we are not as much self-created free agents as we had thought.
The current appeal has also been connected to a longing for someone to stand up against the modern global economic system of “bread and circuses” in the way that Jesus did. But I found the 3rd book, Mockingjay, deeply disturbing. I just wasn’t prepared for so much confusion and futility in a YA book. It’s disturbing enough in Brave New World. At least Fahrenheit 451 ends with a small band of enlightened ones emerging from the decadence to carry the hope of thought and civilization.
But life is disturbing. Even futile. Apart from God. Mockingjay actually provides a gripping modern gloss on Ecclesiastes, lodging deep in the readers bones the truth about life “under the sun.” As the Teacher says, wisdom is better than folly, so we struggle for the better, but the same fate overtakes the wise person and the fool--both die, both are forgotten. It was the NIV Study Bible note on 2.17-23 that made the connection blindingly clear to me: “To pursue human fulfillment through work done ‘under the sun’...is grievous and meaningless and leads to despair; its fruits must be left to others whose character one cannot predict” (1009-10).
This is just as true when the work is the pursuit of justice and freedom. Even with God, we do not know what will prosper or for how long: maybe the freedom and justice we fight for will be just the rest between wars, when people say “never again” until they forget, as a cynical character in Mockingjay claims. But what we do know is that we are joining with God in his passion for seeing the wounds of this fallen world healed until he brings the final and complete healing.
I do that--join with God in that project of healing--by sharing my love for and skill with communication with 15-year-olds in a classroom setting and challenging them to grow their use of those skills to enjoy the beauties of creation and to bring wholeness to its brokenness.
School gets a lot of bad rap these days (scratch “these days”--it goes back at least as far as Charles Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times with his “facts, facts, facts”). Modern Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in his Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World continues the critique:
“Grandfather says that schools are too inefficient to produce top material. What do you think?” she asked.
“Well, probably so,” I answered, “I want to school for many years and I don’t believe it made that much difference in my life....” /
“So why didn’t you quit school? You could have quit any time you wanted, couldn’t you?”
“I guess so,” I said. “I could have quit, but I didn’t want to. I guess it didn’t occur to me to do anything like that. Unlike you, I had a perfectly average, ordinary upbringing. I never had what it takes to make a first-rate anything.”
“That’s wrong,” she declared, “Everyone must have one thing that they can excel at. It’s just a matter of drawing it out, isn’t it? But school doesn’t know how to draw it out. It crushes the gift. It’s no wonder most people never get to be what they want to be. They just get ground down.” (Murakami 191-192)
In my annual summer search to prepare to bring more wholeness in the next school year by getting just a little better at drawing out that gift in each student rather than crushing it, I’ve started what will probably be my last 3 professional books of the summer: Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement by Ceri B. Dean, et al; Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing through Modeling and Mentor Texts by Kelly Gallagher; and Revision Strategies for Adolescent Writers: Moving Students in the Write Direction by Jolene Borgese, Dick Heyler, and Stephanie Romano. Couldn’t through them all in time for this week’s blog, so I took a bit of a time-out from the writing about professional reading to writing about some of my fiction reading. Though the line between gets rather blurred since my profession is to share what I love.
Everything becomes grist for the mill.