Recently my American Literature high school students studied plot reversals, the unexpected twists that occur in fiction.
We read and analyzed “Solipsist,” a one-page story published in 1954 by Fredric Brown.
In the story, a character named Walter B. Jehovah becomes a solipsist, which means he believes that he is the only thing that really exists.
Within a week, Walter’s wife leaves him, he loses his job and he breaks his leg chasing a black cat.
He ends up in a hospital and wishes everything around him to disappear; as result, he finds himself suspended in a void.
Next, Walter wills himself out of existence, but it doesn’t work.
A voice tells Walter he must create a universe and wait until someone in it really believes what he believes and wills it out of existence. Then, Walter can ‘retire’ and cease to exist.
So, Walter B. Jehovah does what any solipsist might who seeks oblivion:
He created the heaven and the earth. It took him seven days.
“Solipsist” provides a twist on the creation story offered in the Book of Genesis. The plot reversal centers on the fact that a selfish individual with little regard for life turns out to be the creator of our universe, in an effort to cease his own existence.
While some might interpret Walter B. Jehovah’s characterization of God to be blasphemous, bleak and even tragic, others might attest that Brown’s twist on the origins and status of our universe is a humorous, interesting and even insightful explanation of God’s seemingly bizarre indifference toward human suffering.
That’s because God in “Solipsist” proves to be as human, flawed and troubled as any of us.
While I do not have a strong opinion about the meaning of “Solipsist,” for a one-page story I will say it packs a hell of a punch.
As such, I was excited to see what my students thought. After reading the last line, I gazed across the classroom and waited for their reactions.
One student uttered, “Wow.”
Otherwise, my gaze was met with blank stares.
I also noticed my students’ phones rested nicely on their desks, right next to their copy of “Solipsist.”
Suddenly I had an empty feeling in my stomach, like I failed my students, failed to deliver the mindless entertainment their phones offered in plenitude and which they secretly sought over the hard work of reading, thinking and discussing something potentially important, like the meaning of life.
They were 18-year-olds, legal adults, and it occurred to me most would never know existence without their phones.
The phones were already as much a part of them as their arms and legs. Indeed, their phones were an extension of their hands, a new appendage for a new age. A digital age.
Likewise, questions about God and the meaning of life did not fit nicely with the latest prank posted on YouTube, or another round of Candy Crush.
One student seated across from me was actually using his phone.
“So, what did you think?” I said to him.
“Who cares,” he said.
“I do,” I said. “You should, too. It’s your education. Your grade. Your life. Put away your phone, please.”
The student did not.
“Please give me your phone,” I said.
The student would not.
“Why do you care what I am doing?” he said.
He did not look at me; he just kept pressing buttons.
“What do you mean why do I care?” I said. “I’m a teacher. All I do is care. You think I’m in this job for the money?”
“Who cares,” he said.
The class and I sat in silence until finally, unable to will us out of existence, he put his phone away. The battle would continue another day.
The war for America’s future is not only taking place in an oil-rich desert, Silicon Valley, the Supreme Court or inside a corporate board room.
The war for America’s future is taking place in our public schools, and our nation is losing. Terribly.
Here, the phones provide passive stimulation to which most students — and adults – have now become addicted.
Students and staff at the high school I teach are reminded by the principal over the public announcement system every morning after the pledge of allegiance to put away all electronic devices, yet the mantra often falls on deaf ears. Students are too busy listening to music or Snapchatting to pay attention to this not-so subtle reminder that it is important they not only attend class but be present while they are in it.
After my lesson with “Solipsist” and the phones, however, I decided more drastic measures were necessary.
I decided to collect all devices from students at the beginning and ending of each period.
Class has never been better.
After their withdrawals subsided, students learned to cope in a world to which they were no longer wired.
They are more present, focused and productive. While some still bemoan the rule and challenge it from time to time, most are beginning to realize their education matters at least as much as their social media status.
Many students seem relieved to have their addiction checked, at least for an hour every school day. However, they are even more relieved to have their phones returned at the end of class and get their fix.
We still use phones from time to time for educational purposes. They are mini computers, after all, and we do live in a digital age. I try to align instruction likewise.
In such cases, the phones are a tool. I dole them out, and I take them away as needed.
I enjoy my job again, too. My students no longer see me as a distraction. Without their phones, I become their primary source of information, insight and entertainment for the 88 minutes we’re together. It’s nice to be appreciated instead of having to compete for their attention.
Here’s a challenge: Turn off your phone and see if you can make it through the day without it.
There will be moments when you don’t know what to do with yourself. You might have to rely on your memory to drive somewhere, or stare at a wall while you are waiting in the doctor’s office.
Eventually, you will take better note of your surroundings, including the fact that life – real life, not the one provided by your news feed – is often dull and boring.
To make life less dull and boring you have to transform from being a passive consumer into an active producer of your own existence.
Facebook alone won’t get you there.
Becoming a great scholar, basketball player, or artist takes a real willingness to challenge yourself and your surroundings.
Real life is steeped in the need for hard work, determination and routine to make anything worthwhile happen.
The road is long, the results are not always great. Not everybody gets to be the next Stephen Hawking, LeBron James, or Adele.
But with a little hard work and commitment to reality, anybody can become a better version of him or herself.
Some say it is Walter B. Jehovah’s world and we just live in it; some say nothing could be further from the truth.
That fact is, I don’t know.
However, if the lesson of “Solipsist” taught my students anything, it seems to have reminded them that their phones are not the only thing that really exist.
Their minds do, too.
Hidden Valley High School
Dec. 6, 2018
Categories: Environment & Health