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Synthesis: A Moment of Happiness

posted: 5.5.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

One morning, late in the spring semester, my phone alarm sounded at 8:50 a.m. as it usually does on the days that I teach, and reminded me that class begins in ten minutes. The phone alarm is set to Patti Smith’s song “People Have the Power,” which helps me to become mindful of a day’s work about to begin. Usually I turn off the alarm right away, but on this particular morning I decided to listen more carefully to the words. I heard: “Listen, I believe everything we dream/Can come to pass through our union/We can turn the world around/We can turn the earth’s revolution.” This song, I thought, has been my theme song this year, the song that kept me resilient in difficult moments, and grounded in more joyful times.

In class that day we were supposed to discuss The Myth of Sisyphus, and I remembered that Camus writes: “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” How do we arrive at the moment of happiness? What gives us the strength to roll that rock up hill yet again, knowing only that we will need to repeat our work for what seems like eternity? Camus suggests that Sisyphus finds his moment of happiness when he realizes the absurdity of his task, during that long trudge down the mountain to retrieve his rock. So the process of schooling—and the writing process itself—is not merely about rolling the same rock up and down for eternity. It also involves that moment of happiness.

“We can turn the world around,” I thought, “that is the lyric that moves me.” At the same time I wondered about my students, who had encountered Sisyphus for the first time this semester. So I invited students synthesize their thoughts about Sisyphus with a song that could serve as their theme song, a song that described their own moments of happiness. We listened to several theme songs from a variety of sources and time periods, everything from Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” to Myley Cyrus’s “The Climb,” to The Script’s  “Hall of Fame.” Then I asked students why the songs related to Sisyphus, and to find a takeaway point from listening to several songs at once. The students suggested that the songs, as different as they seemed, discussed universal themes, especially perseverance—pushing through and not giving up. Perseverance, for the students, was linked to that moment of happiness. Sisyphus achieves because he keeps trying. Even as the cycle remains endless, each time he moves through the process, he learns something new. This learning also brings happiness.

I have written about synthesis before, in relation to finding similarities in two seemingly different print texts. Traci Gardner and Jonathan Alexander, in previous Bits posts, have drawn attention to the importance of synthesis for understanding and creating visual rhetoric. Yet synthesis can serve additional functions, outside—as well as inside—of writing studies classes.

Students enrolled in college daily confront contradictions in their lives: post-secondary education, they are told by employers, families, government, peers, and high school teachers, is necessary for a good job. Yet good jobs are few and far between, and student loans to cover tuition costs carry notoriously high interest rates. Even if one manages to find a good job after graduation, much of the salary will go toward student loan payments. What is the purpose and what is the point? Class can be boring and writing is hard work.  Why stick with this? Why stay?

As teachers, we need to find the means to intervene in negative self-talk. Perhaps we cannot change the material realities of students’ lives. Yet, as we grapple with writing and with making meaning, we can offer a new vocabulary for addressing the absurdity of difficult circumstances. We can begin the journey again, aiming for the summit. Synthesis remains the moment of happiness as we move down the hill—and the rock that pushes us forward.

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